Feb 9, 2010 8:17 PM
If you're living with chronic pain, you may have already tried the usual treatments. You may have cycled through the drugs, like NSAIDs and opioids. Maybe you've even tried surgery. But you're still in pain. Could natural pain relief with pain supplements offer an alternative?
Experts say -- depending on what's causing your pain -- supplements may help.
"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."
Given the heavy toll that chronic pain can take on a person's life, getting control of your pain is key. For a better understanding of which pain supplements might help with which conditions, WebMD turned to some integrative medicine experts. Whether you're suffering from an achy knee or nerve pain, here's what you need to know about natural pain relief.
What sets chronic pain apart from more acute pain is its relentlessness. Acute pain fades away as the body heals from an injury. Chronic pain doesn't.
The causes of chronic pain vary -- fibromyalgia, arthritis, nerve damage, and back injuries to name a few. But in a way, the core problem is the same: pain. It's the pain that sends people to the doctor. It's the pain that can devastate a person's life. Pain was once thought of as the side effect of other conditions. Now, many experts see chronic pain as a condition in itself that needs its own treatment.
Still, for the average person, getting the right treatment isn't easy.
"Unfortunately, the conventional medical treatment of chronic pain still isn't very good," says Leopold. Perhaps the treatment doesn't work well and the pain is still interfering with your life. Or maybe the side effects are too severe. Opioid painkillers can cause sedation, constipation, and a risk of addiction. NSAID painkillers -- from over-the-counter drugs like Advil to prescription medicines like Celebrex -- pose a danger of bleeding, stomach problems, and cardiovascular risks.
Natural pain relief offers an alternative. But given that there are so many pain supplements lining the shelves of your drugstore, it's hard to know where to start. Here's a rundown of the chronic pain supplements that our experts thought were most important.
Rakel adds that the painkilling effects of fish oil can also be boosted by combining it with other pain supplements like turmeric or ginger -- provided your doctor says it's safe.
"Personally, I've seen miracles," she says. "I've found that it can have a huge benefit in the symptoms of people with fibromyalgia." She reports that it's helpful with other kinds of chronic pain too, like bone and joint pain.
"SAMe can run $80-$120 a month," says Edwards, "so I tend not to use it very much. I can usually get results that are just as good with less expensive treatments."
Alpha-lipoic acid may also enhance insulin sensitivity -- another benefit for people with diabetes. There's evidence that this pain supplement can help with nerve damage caused by cancer treatments, too.
As effective as natural pain relief can be, Leopold urges people to keep an open mind about traditional approaches, too. "NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen work really well," says Leopold, "and they're incredibly cheap. The price tag on some supplements can be substantial."
Natural pain relief and traditional medicine don't have to stand in opposition. Leopold has some patients who take a daily pain supplement like turmeric for pain. Then during exacerbations, they add on an NSAID.
That said, no one should be mixing pain supplements and medications without seeing a doctor first. It could be risky. So make sure your health care provider knows about all the medicines and supplements you use.
If you're looking at alternatives to pain medication and surgery, there are lots of options besides pain supplements.
"When it comes to pain relief, I actually find supplements less helpful than some other complementary treatments," says Rakel. Here's a rundown of other natural pain relief options.
While chronic pain supplements can really help, experts also suggest you temper your expectations. Be skeptical of any ads your see for all-natural "cures" to chronic pain. Unfortunately, sure-fire cures don't exist.
Whatever you do, don't go it alone. Anyone who is living with chronic pain needs to be working with a health care professional. Try to find a pain specialist. If one is available in your area, seek out a pain clinic.
Don't settle for half-measures. The costs of poorly controlled chronic pain on your life -- and your family's -- are just too high. Get help from a specialist. Together, you can get your pain under control.