Pain can dominate our life experience, so natural pain relief is on a lot of people's minds. Whether the discomfort occurs in the head, stomach, back, joints, or muscles, pain can make simple activities difficult, ruin our ability to concentrate, and interfere with body mechanics. For some, every movement must be calculated to avoid discomfort.
We generally address mild pain with over-the-counter remedies, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen—the most commonly used drugs in the U.S. In fact, they are frequently overused for chronic pain because they're assumed to safe (they're so readily available even children can buy them). While these drugs can reduce inflammation, they don't always get to the root of the problem and may sometimes only mask the symptoms. Furthermore, new research suggests that these drugs have more serious long-term side effects than previously believed, contributing to intestinal damage, liver failure, and more. Prescription pain medications are much more risky while also being dangerously habit-forming.
Ideally, we want a pain treatment that alleviates the discomfort, addresses the root causes, and promotes health. A number of alternative approaches meet this description. By reducing inflammation, improving circulation and mobility and providing gentle relaxation, specific supplements and therapies can bring relief and help address their underlying causes and support overall health.
• Sold in capsules, extracts, powders, and as a whole root, turmeric is a common Ayurvedic spice that has a well-deserved reputation for controlling pain and supporting longevity and vitality. Turmeric is a powerful and versatile anti-inflammatory spice; it supports circulation, detoxification, immunity, and tissue repair, among other factors in health.
• Ginger, a relative of turmeric, can reduce inflammation and increase circulation, and is particularly helpful for joint pain. Powdered ginger can be taken in a capsule or brewed as tea. Gingerroot is a wonderful addition to stir-fry, soups, desserts, and other dishes.
• Derived from chili pepper, capsaicin is an active compound that has long been known for its ability to relieve pain; it's often used as a topical cream.
• Vitamin D deficiency has been known to accompany chronic pain. One study compared pain medication requirements among people with normal and decreased vitamin D levels. Those deficient in vitamin D needed almost twice as much pain medication to provide relief.
• Vitamin C is another powerful anti-inflammatory ingredient, and has been found to reduce pain and help people recover from sports injuries.
• The B vitamin family is useful in treating nerve pain, particularly for those suffering from diabetes.
• Acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid have also been shown to relieve diabetic nerve pain.
• For those suffering from arthritis, glucosamine can help relieve stiff joints. It's often combined with chondroitin.
• Magnesium has been shown to control NMDA, a neurochemical associated with pain. Magnesium also helps to relax stiff or spasmodic muscles and improve circulation. In addition to taking magnesium orally, there are topical forms as well as the traditional Epsom salts added to a bath; both absorb easily through the skin and can be quite effective.
• Boswellia (Indian frankincense), the resin from the Boswellia serrate tree, contains active components which help reduce inflammation and pain. It can be taken as a supplement as well as used topically.
Arthritis and Galectin-3
An emerging body of published research has identified a major culprit in inflammation: Fibrosis, or excessive scar tissue buildup, occurs in the joints as a result of chronic inflammation and causes chronic stiffness and pain. This process has been shown to be driven by an inflammatory protein called galectin-3. Excessive levels of galectin-3 in the body have also been implicated in cancer metastasis, cardiovascular disease, and many other conditions, including arthritis. Because galectin-3 promotes inflammation and excessive scar tissue buildup, it plays a major role in joint pain and degeneration, as well as other types of inflammatory pain.
In my practice, I recommend patients struggling with arthritis or other inflammatory pain to control their galectin-3 levels with modified citrus pectin (MCP). Derived from the pith of citrus peels, MCP has a unique ability to enter the circulation and bind to galectin-3, inhibiting the inflammatory and fibrotic effects of this "rogue protein." MCP also safely detoxifies pro-inflammatory heavy metals like lead, mercury, and arsenic, which can accumulate in joints and tissues.
More: 11 Surprising Remedies for Arthritis
In addition to supplements, I also recommend more active approaches to pain relief. There are a variety of manual and energetic therapies that have been found to reduce inflammation and relieve pain.
• Acupuncture has been used in China for thousands of years to treat pain and other conditions. From an Eastern standpoint, the small needles help release energy blockages in painful areas, improving the flow of vital energy (qi or chi). From a Western point of view, acupuncture releases neurotransmitters that help block pain. Either way, numerous studies have proved acupuncture to be quite effective.
• Acupressure is similar to acupuncture, only instead of needles the practitioner applies manual pressure to acupuncture points to relieve pain. As with acupuncture, how this method works depends on perspective, but whether it's increasing energy flow, releasing feel-good endorphins, or boosting circulation, the end result is the same: relaxation and relief from sore muscles and tense, painful areas.
• Craniosacral therapy uses gentle manipulations to promote relaxation and improve circulation. The practitioner gently moves bones, tendons, and other tissues to increase circulation and release areas of tightness.
• Massage has become a multifaceted art with many techniques and methods. Results combine muscle relaxation with improved circulation, reduction of stress hormones, endorphin release, and other relaxation benefits.
• Frequency specific microcurrent uses a programmable machine that passes a very light electrical current through the inflamed or injured area to stimulate healing and rebalance sensitive electrical charges at the cellular level. Originally used to accelerate healing of sports injuries, this technology has broad applications for chronic pain and mobility.
More: Your Chronic Pain Questions Answered
Meditation is another way to help reduce chronic pain. One of meditation's multiple benefits is reducing "fight-or-flight" hormones, such as cortisol. Excess cortisol increases inflammation and even enhances the perception of pain, so anything we can do to relax this response can help reduce pain. There are many studies that have shown meditation can reduce pain for people suffering from a wide range of conditions.
Diet is a critical factor in controlling inflammation and improving circulation, thus reducing pain. Avoid pro-inflammatory, processed foods such as refined sugar and grains, fried foods, and dairy. Instead, emphasize nutrient-dense whole foods, healthy fats, and lots of brightly colored fruits and vegetables to reduce chronic pain and support flexibility.
In many cases, people use a combination of supplements, manual therapies, and mind-body practices to find relief from acute and chronic pain. Many of these approaches provide other benefits, controlling pain while improving overall health. By experimenting with different approaches and working with a trained practitioner, you can put together a program that's effective for your unique situation.