Natural Pain Relief

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Patti Schmidt is an award-winning writer and PWC (Person With CFIDS), and is a member of the Board of Directors of The CFIDS Association of America. Ms. Schmidt has written about a wide variety of topics relating to living and coping with the disease, and her articles have appeared in the CFIDS Chronicle and Research Review.

Ever since someone discovered that a certain bark steeped in hot water helped toothaches and headaches feel better, people have been using food, supplements, and vitamins to combat ailments and improve health. That’s important for those who cannot tolerate nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). Scientists know that about 25% of people who use NSAIDs experience some side effects, and about 5% develop serious health consequences.(1)

In fact, ulcers and other serious gastrointestinal side effects caused by NSAIDs are the leading adverse drug reactions in the U.S.(2) “The serious side effects caused by NSAIDs result in more than 200,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths annually,” said Thomas J. Schnitzer, M.D., Ph.D., Northwestern University Medical School, a rheumatologist and geriatrician who participated in a recent conference of the National Institutes of Health to study safety issues surrounding NSAIDs. “The treatment cost for NSAID-induced side effects is $3 billion a year,” he said. “Older patients are at higher risk for these complications.”

According to a recent Gallup survey, pain is a fact of life for many in the U.S., with 46% of women and 37% of men reporting that they experience pain daily. So the fact that science keeps finding things to make us feel better is a good thing for all Americans, because we’re known for our unhealthy eating habits, our ever-increasing weight, and our “coach-potato” lifestyles and lack of exercise. It’s certainly not due to a lack of things on the market – supermarkets, vitamin stores and health food store shelves are filled with new vitamins and supplements, each one promising to fix what ails you.

Antioxidants: Many people take antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E for relief of arthritis pain, but the best data is for vitamin E. Studies from Germany have found strong pain relief effects for vitamin E, comparable to NSAIDs.(3)

A number of recent studies have shown oxidative stress may be involved in the pathogenesis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). The role of oxidative stress in CFS is an important area for current and future research, as it suggests antioxidant use in managing CFS. Glutathione, N-acetylcysteine, alpha-lipoic acid, oligomeric proanthocyanidins, Ginkgo biloba, and Vaccinium myrtillus (bilberry) may be beneficial.(4) A study in early 2001 found that CFS is tied to arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which becomes heart disease. They recommend antioxidant therapy, including beta carotene, vitamins C and E, selenium and pycnogenol®.(5)

Amino Acids: The amino acids ornithine and arginine can be used to promote Growth Hormone production. Calcium and zinc supplements help sleep patterns return to normal.(6)

The B vitamins: Vitamin B-3 and B-6, along with magnesium and tryptophan (turkey is especially good, although any meal full of protein will do) helps your body manufacture serotonin.(7) Many CFS patients have found Vitamin B-12 shots useful.(8)

Vitamin C: Many people use vitamin C for its potent antioxidant properties. It’s proven to cut cold symptoms by 85% when taken at the onset of symptoms.(9) It helps aid patients with congestive heart failure by suppressing the signal for cell death within blood vessel linings.(10)

A study in which fibromyalgia (FM) patients were given ascorbigen – a form of vitamin C, and broccoli powder, showed a 20% decrease in their physical impairment score, and a 17% decrease in their total fibromyalgia impact scores as measured by the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire.(11)

Calcium: Another supplement that has been mentioned to help with menstrual pain. In a double-blind study, daily calcium supplements were given to women suffering from premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Calcium was an effective treatment for PMS, including water retention and pain.(12)

Capsaicin: Capsaicin, the substance that gives peppers their heat, is an alkaloid from chilies that was introduced to Europe after Columbus’ second voyage to the new world in 1494. Capsaicin is a potent anesthetic and pain reliever; it reduces substance P, a neurotransmitter that carries pain messages to the brain.(13)

Topical capsaicin can be used as an analgesic. Two researchers searched the literature for capsaicin papers, looking for information from randomized, double-blind and placebo-controlled studies, which were then used for quantitative analysis by clinical condition.

Results for the 13 trials that fulfilled these criteria and where there were extractable data, showed that capsaicin 0.075% cream helped those with diabetic neuropathy (73% patients responded with capsaicin compared with 49% placebo); osteoarthritis (45% patients responded compared to 16% with placebo); postherpetic neuralgia (4 of 16 patients improved compared to only 1of 16 patients who took placebo); and post-mastectomy pain (5 of 13 patients improved compared to 1 of 10 patients who took placebo).(14)

Hot pepper candy made with chilies and taffy even relieves mouth sores of people undergoing chemotherapy.(15)

Cherries & Berries: So instead of swallowing those couple of tablets, snack on about 20 cherries, which have been used for ages to ease arthritis and gout discomfort, or a few berries. A study of fruit’s medicinal power, which appeared in the September 2001 issue of Phytomedicine, found some kinds of tart and sweet cherries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, stop cyclooxygenase enzymes from forming, just like ibuprofen and Vioxx do. In addition, they found cherries act as a more potent antioxidant than vitamin E.(16)

Fats: For many people on a diet, fat is the first thing to go, but some types of fat are essential for good health. Athena Linos, M.D., and her colleagues from the University of Athens Medical School, found that those who use the most olive oil and eat the most cooked vegetables are less likely to develop arthritis.(17) The reason? Beneficial fatty acids that inhibit inflammation.

Some plant and fish oils offer benefits too. The oil from cold water fish, like salmon or mackerel, rich in the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA), helps reduce inflammation. Studies show these oils may improve morning stiffness, joint tenderness and swelling.(18)

Plant oils, like evening primrose, flaxseed, and borage, also contain inflammation-fighting essential fatty acids (EFAs).(19) But be careful: Fish oil can increase the effect of blood-thinning drugs, and evening primrose oil can counteract the effect of anticonvulsant drugs.(20)

Avocado oil, when combined with soybean oil, relieves osteoarthritis pain. Called avocado/soybean unsaponifiables (ASU), the mixture of one-third avocado to two-thirds soybean oil also helps stimulate cartilage repair. French investigators found that patients taking ASU felt less pain and needed fewer NSAIDs than those receiving placebo therapies.(21)

Glucosamine Sulfate: Glucosamine sulfate has garnered quite a following, especially among those with arthritis.(22) The National Institute of Health is sponsoring a large-scale, 4-year study of the supplement. The results of a recent 3-year study of 212 patients with osteoarthritis found subjects who took glucosamine didn’t experience narrowing in their knee joint, while those taking a placebo did.(23)

Low-fat Vegan Diet: FM patients who switched to a low-fat vegan diet found their joints hurt less, and their overall pain levels decreased too.(24)

Magnesium: Magnesium deficiency is a common problem for CFS/FM patients, so take 300-600 mgs of magnesium and 1200-1400 mgs per day of malic acid, the same way 15 FM patients did in a recent confirmatory study. Their pain levels were greatly reduced, although it took a few weeks or even months for benefits to be noticed.(25)

Soy: Many people eat the legume for its notable protein content, or its reputation as a “heart healthy” food. It’s also a source of omega-3 fatty acids and calcium, and supplies most of the essential amino acids people need to make proteins.

In November, scientists from Johns Hopkins and two Israeli universities discovered soy offers pain relief. A study showed laboratory rats fed a diet containing soy meal develop much less pain after nerve injury than rats who ate soy-free diets.(26)

Researcher James N. Campbell, M.D., said in a Vegetarian Times interview, that what the rats ate immediately prior to the injury played a pivotal role in preventing pain. Further study of soy is under way, and Campbell and his long-distance colleagues at Jerusalem’s Hadassah University hope eventually to isolate the protective element at work.

Sugar: The average American consumes 125 grams of sucrose every day, plus 50 grams of other refined simple sugars. Within 30 minutes of consuming 100 grams (about 4 ounces) of glucose, fructose, sucrose, honey, or orange juice, your white blood cells’ ability to destroy foreign particles and microorganisms is reduced. Within two hours, your white blood cells will suffer a 50% reduction in their ability to destroy and engulf foreign particles. The negative effect lasts for more than five hours.(27) Short-term fasting can help improve immune function by lowering blood sugar levels, particularly during the first 24-48 hours of an acute infection. But the fast should not be continued for long, since eventually the leukocytes’ energy sources will become depleted.(28)

Interesting Findings

If all of those common things don’t make you feel better, this will: Scientists aren’t resting on their laurels as far as finding pain relievers. A review in the April 2001 issue of Nature Biotechnology describes how scientists are developing pain-relieving drugs from marijuana, peppers, snails, and frogs. Investigators treating patients with overactive bladders and people with pain in their extremities from diabetes are working with a capsaicin derivative which seems to have fewer side effects than capsaicin itself.(29)

Venom from the cone snail, which lives on the coast of the Philippines, is a potent drug for relieving pain after surgery and for some kinds of chronic pain. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University used a compound from the venom and found it to be a thousand times more potent than morphine, as well as a good option for those who don’t respond to or cannot take morphine.(30)

Researchers are also looking at the poisonous Ecuadorian frog Epipedobates tricolor, which secretes a substance on its skin to kill predators. The substance is a pain-killer hundreds of times more potent than morphine, but it’s too poisonous for humans. Abbott Laboratories has developed a synthetic version that’s being tested for both acute and chronic pain.(31)

A drug known as Prosaptide TX14A, developed by John S. O’Brien, MD, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California in San Diego, is a promising treatment for diabetes-related pain. Myelos Neuroscience of San Diego is testing the drug in 150 patients. Other researchers are trying to use gene therapy to deliver drugs to specific pain sites in the body.(32)


1. The Pain & Older Americans Survey, conducted in 1997 for The National Council on the Aging by Louis Harris & Associates, underwritten by an unrestricted educational grant from Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical.

2. The Pain & Older Americans Survey, conducted in 1997 for The National Council on the Aging by Louis Harris & Associates, underwritten by an unrestricted educational grant from Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical.

3. Abate A, Yang G, Dennery PA, Oberle S, Schroder H. Synergistic inhibition of cyclooxygenase-2 expression by vitamin E and aspirin. Free Radic Biol Med 2000 Dec;29(11):1135-42.

4. Logan AC, Wong C. Chronic fatigue syndrome: oxidative stress and dietary modifications. Altern Med Rev 2001 Oct;6(5):450-459.

5. Antioxidant status and lipoprotein peroxidation in chronic fatigue syndrome. Life Sciences, March 16, 2001, Vol. 68 pp 2037-2049

6. See

7. See

8. See

9. Gorton HC, Jarvis K.The effectiveness of vitamin C in preventing and relieving the symptoms of virus-induced respiratory infections. J Manipulative Physical Ther 1999 Oct;22(8):530-3.

10. Circulation. October 30, 2001. See

11. The Use of Ascorbigen in the Treatment of Fibromyalgia Patients: A Preliminary Trial. Altern Med Rev 2000;5(5):455-462

12. See

13. WY Zhang, A Li Wan Po. The effectiveness of topically applied capsaicin. European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 1994 46:517-22.


15. Seeram NP, Momin RA, Nair MG, Bourquin LD, Department of Horticulture and National Food Safety and Toxicology Center, Michigan State University, East Lansing 48824, USA. Phytomedicine 2001 Sep;8(5):362-9.

16. Linos A, Kaklamani VG, Kaklamani E, Koumantaki Y, Giziaki E, Papazoglou S, Mantzoros CS. Dietary factors in relation to rheumatoid arthritis: a role for olive oil and cooked vegetables? Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Dec;70(6):1077-82.

17. Horrocks LA, Yeo YK., Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Pharmacol Res 1999 Sep;40(3):211-25.

18. Belch JJ, Hill A., Evening primrose oil and borage oil in rheumatologic conditions. Am J Clin Nutr 2000 Jan;71(1 Suppl):352S-6S.

19. For more information on drug/supplement interactions, go to the NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS at

20. Cake MA, Read RA, Guillou B, Ghosh P. Modification of articular cartilage and subchondral bone pathology in an ovine meniscectomy model of osteoarthritis by avocado and soya unsaponifiables (ASU). Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2000 Nov;8(6):404-11.

21. Joint remedies. Consum Rep 2002 Jan;67(1):18-21.

22. Hochberg MC, Dougados M., Pharmacological therapy of osteoarthritis. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol 2001 Oct;15(4):583-93.

23. Hanninen, Kaartinen K, Rauma AL, Nenonen M, Torronen R, Hakkinen AS, Adlercreutz H, Laakso J. Antioxidants in vegan diet and rheumatic disorders. Toxicology 2000 Nov 30;155(1-3):45-53

24. Abraham G et al Management of Fibromyalgia – rationale for the use of magnesium and malic acid Journal of Nutritional Medicine 3:49-59 1992 .

25. See for more information.

27. Murray and Pizzorno, Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Revised 2nd Edition, 1998, pp. 151-152.

28. Murray and Pizzorno, Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Revised 2nd Edition, 1998, pp. 151-152.

29. Brower, V. New paths to pain relief. Nature Biotechnology 18, 387 – 391.

30. Brower, V. New paths to pain relief. Nature Biotechnology 18, 387 – 391.

31. Brower, V. New paths to pain relief. Nature Biotechnology 18, 387 – 391.

32. Brower, V. New paths to pain relief. Nature Biotechnology 18, 387 – 391.

Source: Healthwatch, February 2002.

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