Having chronic pain is hard – really hard – and trying to understand your treatment options is often overwhelming. You may feel especially daunted when researching supplements for chronic pain, where the sheer volume of available information is enough to deter anyone.
How are you supposed to know what’s a legitimate medicine and what’s a waste of your time and money? Sometimes it feels like you need a degree in chemistry just to read the label! We’ve broken down some of the most popular and effective supplements for chronic pain management, to help you distinguish the medicine from the myth.
Supplements for Back Pain Conditions
Back pain is the number one cause of chronic pain, so unsurprisingly the supplement market for this condition is huge. You can find anything from complex chemicals to old-fashioned herbs. The following cover some of the major supplements usually recommended for back pain:
1. Devil’s Claw
This type of root is both an anti-inflammatory and an analgesic, and has been used for centuries to ease pain and stiffness. Easily available both online and in stores, scientists believe Devil’s Claw acts similarly to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) because it contains compounds with anti-inflammatory properties. Research shows that in patients with moderate to severe back pain, continued use of 50-100mg daily helped to reduce pain.
The plant part of comfrey contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which, when eaten, can cause liver damage, lung damage, and cancer. In fact, the FDA has banned the ingestible version of comfrey. However, the root is commonly used as a base for topical ointments made for acute back pain relief. Some people also use the ointment for knee and ankle pain. Studies have shown that the ointment can decrease pain after just a week of use.
The chemical element magnesium seems to be recommended for everything, from bone health to anxiety. The same goes for chronic low back pain. Magnesium has analgesic effects that relieve pain and improve mobility. Simply taking a small dose of an over-the-counter (OTC) tablet may not be sufficient though; clinical trials only show significant efficacy when taken by IV for at least two weeks, followed by oral supplements for another month.
Myth: Chinese Herbs for Back Pain
Chinese herbs encompass a whole range of natural pain relievers, from plant by-products to ground roots, whole leaves, and teas. Traditional Chinese medicines are frequently marketed to chronic back pain sufferers as a safe alternative to pain medication. Buyers beware though; there is no scientific evidence that backs its use for this condition, and significant side effects can occur.
The FDA does not require companies of dietary supplements to pass inspection before they are sold. Therefore, they can have almost anything in them, and can potentially cause upset stomachs, severe allergic reactions, bleeding and more.
Supplements for Headaches and Migraines
The second most common causes of chronic pain, headaches and migraines, also have their fair share of recommended supplements for chronic pain. These include:
1. Vitamin B2
Vitamin B2 can help with migraine prevention. Studies have shown that 400mg a day significantly lessens migraine frequency, duration, and severity. These studies measured efficacy after three months of continued use, so this supplement may require long-term use.
The leaves of the feverfew plant are often dried and used for headaches and migraines, but the jury is still out on its usefulness. One possible reason for this includes the fact that the concentration of the active ingredient, parthenolide, varies between plants. One systematic review showed that taking at least 18mg of feverfew a day over four months almost halved migraine frequency in study participants.
The butterbur plant helps to smooth muscle relaxation and inhibit leukotriene, or inflammatory mediators in the body, which both reduce migraines. 100-150mg a day can decrease the severity and help prevent the occurrence of headaches and migraines. Medical advice states that you should use a standardized extract, or else the efficacy of the treatment will vary.
4. Coenzyme and Magnesium
Coenzyme and magnesium, when taken together, can reduce migraine frequency, severity, and duration, as well as the occurrence of migraine-induced nausea. Oftentimes, doctors recommend this combination as a safe migraine treatment for children, and magnesium on its own for women suffering from menstruation-related headaches.
Myth: White Willow Bark for Headaches
White willow bark, otherwise known as “nature’s aspirin,” is often recommended for headaches, low back pain, cramps, Ankylosing spondylitis (AS), rheumatoid arthritis, and as an anti-inflammatory. People use it as a tea, or sometimes buy it in capsule form from nutritional stores.
While the bark does contain the chemical salicin, which acts in a similar fashion to aspirin, white willow bark’s catch-all efficacy remains overstated. Currently, the lack of conclusive research surrounding the supplement shows that users should be wary of using it for pain. High doses can contribute to sensitive stomachs and kidney problems. Additionally, doctors do not recommend giving the supplement to children, since it can have dangerous side-effects in younger people.
General Anti-Inflammatory Supplements
Inflammation can exacerbate chronic pain. Thankfully, there are a number of possible supplements and dietary items that can help reduce inflammation in the body and thereby reduce pain.
1. Turmeric and Ginger
Turmeric, a member of the ginger family, can help treat nausea. Both turmeric and ginger can also reduce inflammation alongside other medications for breast cancer, kidney problems, colitis, and diabetes. Ginger and turmeric have reduced inflammation in breast cancer and diabetes patients specifically, and can also potentially help the body recover after heavy exercise. They cause few side effects — many people use them daily in their cooking — but very high doses can thin the blood. Generally, anything up to 2g a day is safe.
2. Alpha-Lipoic Acid
Alpha-lipoic acid occurs naturally in the body; it’s an antioxidant and is vital for the proper functioning of your metabolism. Some studies also show that it reduces inflammation caused by cancer, liver disease, insulin disorders, and more. Other studies doubt the efficacy of the antioxidant, however. If you take the appropriate doses, in a range of 300-600mg, you should see minimal side effects.
3. Fish Oil
Fish oil’s main component, omega-3 fatty acids, has many beneficial effects on the body. In response, the information surrounding the supplement for chronic pain has exploded. Particular omega-3s help more than others; for example, studies have shown that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can reduce inflammation and muscle damage, as well as improve gut health.
Research conclusions about fish oil vary. Some studies show that those who took DHA lowered their inflammation markers by almost a third, while others appeared not to benefit from DHA at all. People on blood thinners should take extra precautions when taking fish oil though, as high doses can cause bleeding.
Myth: Glucosamine for Inflammation and Pain
Glucosamine and chondroitin, primarily used for arthritis-related pain, have been under scrutiny for many years. Trials show no significant improvement in joint pain or mobility, but still, rumors of their magical properties persist, with many doctors still recommending them. They even come as dog food supplements for elderly canines! Even though their effectiveness has never been scientifically proven, some patients still swear by them — even if it’s likely it’s just the placebo effect.
Supplements for Other Types of Pain
Of course, various supplements claim to help other types of pain. They include:
- Arnica: often used for post-surgery swelling and acute injuries. Research is mixed, with some studies even finding that arnica use increases pain!
- Valerian root: used for muscle and joint pain, as well as menstrual cramps. Again, the jury is still out on this one.
- Gelatin (collagen): for joint pain. There is absolutely no evidence that collagen has any effect.
- SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine): used for fibromyalgia-related point pain. Some research has shown its effectiveness.
- Soy and malic acid: for fibromyalgia relief. No positive effects have been shown.
Other Alternative Medicines
In addition to supplements, alternative medicines can cover everything from dietary changes to essential oils, Epsom salt, and probiotics. Anti-inflammatory diets, in particular, are often touted as having miraculous pain benefits. You can’t throw a rock without finding a study that either shows or disproves the benefits of eating dairy, avoiding dairy, eating raw, eliminating citrus, cutting out gluten or caffeine, and so on. However, there is still no single consensus on a diet that helps with chronic pain.
How To Stay Safe
Using any supplement or medication should only be done with the full consent of your primary care doctor. Make sure they know what you’re taking, and be aware that some people are more at risk than others from unwanted supplement side effects. This is especially true for pregnant women and those already taking medications.
If you do choose to try a supplement for your chronic pain, remember to purchase them from a reputable store, use a reputable brand name, and always follow the dosage instructions. You may or may not experience relief; each person’s pain journey is different, so remember to be observant of any changes with your pain. Also, try to avoid mixing and matching new supplements, so you can be sure you know which supplement has what effect.
What supplements for chronic pain do you use?
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