Can supplements help you manage chronic pain? For answers, WebMD turned to integrative medicine experts.
"I think supplements can be the cornerstone of good pain management," says David C. Leopold, MD, director of Integrative Medical Education at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego. "People are also looking to supplements more and more. They have less tolerance for the side effects of traditional pain medications. They want something different."
Here's a rundown of the chronic pain supplements that our experts thought were most important.
Anti-inflammatory plants and herbs. Chronic inflammation contributes to many painful conditions, including osteoarthritis and back pain. Anti-inflammatory medicines such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen work well because they block the enzymes that trigger both swelling and pain.
"There are natural alternatives to NSAIDs that have a similar mechanism," says Leopold. They include turmeric, green tea, ginger, rosemary, cat's claw, devil's claw, and willow bark.
Which pain supplement is best? Leopold and other experts single out turmeric. "It works really well," says Tanya Edwards, MD, medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. "I've had patients with arthritis who start using turmeric and are able to go off their NSAIDs entirely." Look for turmeric in standardized capsules.
Because they work in the same way as NSAIDs, these pain supplements do pose some of the same risks, such as bleeding and stomach upset. However, the side effects tend to be less severe. Leopold still suggests that people on blood-thinning drugs check with a doctor before using any of these pain supplements.
Fish oil. "Fish oil is the clean-up hitter of supplements," says David P. Rakel, MD, founder and director of the University of Wisconsin's Integrative Medicine Program in Madison. There's strong evidence that it helps with many conditions, ranging from cardiovascular problems to depression to asthma.
Fish oil can also ease the inflammation and pain caused by many chronic conditions. The dose used in the most convincing research is 2 to 4 grams of DHA + EPA daily (read labels carefully!). Although beneficial omega-3 fatty acids are available from other sources, experts say that fish oil has the best evidence.
"I recommend omega-3s to everybody, including those with chronic pain," says Leopold. He says that they help with headaches, back pain, some nerve pain, and autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
"The pain relief you get from fish oil alone is not tremendous," notes Rakel. You can boost the painkilling effects of fish oil by combining it with other pain supplements like turmeric or ginger, says Rakel. But first check with your doctor to be sure those combinations are safe for you.
Vitamin D. A number of studies have linked low levels of vitamin D with increased levels of chronic pain.