Anyone who has ever suffered with pain knows how debilitating it can be, particularly when it’s chronic. Yet the conventional solution—strong, pharmaceutical medicines—are turning out to be worse than the problem. They certainly get rid of pain— but at what cost?
Pain and Opioids
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the US is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic. Since 1999, the rate of overdose deaths that involved opioids nearly quadrupled, with over 165,000 people dying just from prescription opioid overdoses 1,2,3.
And that’s just the hard stuff. Consider that 107,000 patients are hospitalized annually for NSAID-related gastrointestinal complications, and at least 16,500 NSAID-related deaths occur each year just among arthritis patients alone4. To put this number into context, it’s about the same number of people who die from AIDS every year. “If deaths from gastrointestinal toxic effects from NSAIDs were tabulated separately in the National Vital Statistics reports, these effects would constitute the 15th most common cause of death in the US”, says a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine5.
What’s particularly frightening is that that report was written in 1999. The problem has gotten exponentially worse since then6.
Over-the-counter Pain Medication
Even such common over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen and aspirin are not without their problems. The excellent website GreenMedInfo has compiled a list of 71 studies that link aspirin to a broad range of side effects ranging from gastric ulcers to cerebral bleeding to H-pylori infections7,8, and 24 studies linking Ibuprofen to adverse health effects that include anemia, DNA damage, hypertension, and miscarriage9,10. There have been at least five studies that claim NSAIDs cause heart problems, and one—published in the journal Circulation—showed that NSAIDS can greatly and quickly increase the risk of death in those who have already suffered one heart attack11.
Tylenol (acetaminophen) has problems of its own. Acetaminophen is the leading cause of acute liver failure in the United States12. Ironically, the standard treatment for acute liver failure is N-acetylcysteine, a relative of the amino acid L-cysteine, and a regular part of any licensed naturopathic doctor’s treatment arsenal13.
While strong pharmaceuticals (like OxyContin and Vicodan) and over-the-counter NSAIDs (aspirin, Alleve, Motrin, Advil) certainly have a place in treatment protocols, they’re not the first choice of a naturopathic physician. Many herbs, botanicals, spices, supplements like fish oil and complementary treatments like acupuncture, have a long history of effectiveness in lowering pain and inflammation. Here is a sampling of some effective natural treatments for pain.
“Fish oil is well-known for its anti-inflammatory properties”, says Michael Cronin, ND, a naturopathic physician in Scottsdale, Az., and past president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. A study comparing ibuprofen and the omega-3s found in fish oil (EPA and DHA) “demonstrated equivalent effect in reducing arthritic pain”14. The authors concluded that fish oil supplements “may be a safer alternative to NSAIDs” for some patients.
Curcumin is a wonderful example of a natural medicine. Curcumin is the active compound in turmeric, the bright orange spice used in Indian food and curries. It’s a powerful anti-inflammatory and has been studied for its beneficial effects on the pain of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis15 and as an anti-inflammatory agent in neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, pulmonary, metabolic, autoimmune and neoplastic diseases16.
Since curcumin is not terribly well-absorbed, it’s best to look for products that use the BCM-95 form of curcumin, such as Curamin by Terry Naturally, widely available in health and vitamin stores. Studies show that BCM-95 curcumin is somewhat better absorbed than the garden-variety kind.
Capsaicin comes from hot chili peppers, and has a long history of use in the practice of natural medicine. It decreases substance P—a compound involved in the transmission of pain signals17—and has been shown to be effective in diabetic neuropathy, postsurgical pain, and Guillain-Barre’ syndrome18. Patients at the New England Center for Headache were able to significantly decrease the intensity of both migraine and cluster headaches after using capsaicin cream inside their nostrils19.
Spices, botanicals, and herbs
Many other spices, botanicals, and herbs have a long history of medicinal use. The American Pain Foundation lists, for pain management, ginseng (for fibromyalgia), kava kava (for tension headaches), St. John’s Wort (for arthritis and sciatica) and valerian root (for spasms and muscle cramps.) Ginger contains potent phytochemicals which help flight inflammation.