Curtis James, MSc
Sure, pain may be a sign that something's wrong. You jam your knee during sports, or bang your thumb while hammering.
Sure, pain may be a sign that something's wrong. You jam your knee during sports, or bang your thumb while hammering. These are examples of acute pain, which, for the most part, results from disease, inflammation or injury. This type of pain generally comes on suddenly after trauma or surgery and may be accompanied by anxiety or emotional distress. The cause can usually be diagnosed and treated.
But long-term pain also known as chronic pain is far more serious than acute pain and can have a devastating effect on your work, family and friends. It can become difficult to concentrate, remember basic things or focus on anything except the pain.
Eighteen percent of Canadians suffer from severe chronic pain, which is caused primarily by back disorders, degenerative joint diseases, fibromyalgia, arthritis, visceral (organ) diseases, cancer, migraines and the effects of cancer treatment.
The estimated cost of chronic pain to Canada, in the form of lost productivity, lost income and medical expenses, is $10 billion a year. And that does not take into account the social costs. For example, Workers' Compensation Boards across Canada do not generally recognize chronic pain as a disability.
The Body's Response
For pain and inflammation, you can thank your body's supply of chemicals called inflammatory mediators. These include prostaglandins, histamines, leukotrienes, cytokines, free radicals, serotonin, interleukin and insulin. When the body malfunctions or when tissues need protection while healing, these chemical triggers kick in. The brain interprets the resulting effects as pain sometimes chronic, unrelenting or even disabling pain.
Let's stress this point. You can treat occasional pain's symptoms and, often, its cause. Or you can ignore it. But if casual pain becomes severe and chronic and later develops into "pain amplification syndrome you cannot treat this super-exaggerated pain. Basically, the nervous system gets used to carrying pain signals and continues to do so long after the original chronic cause has gone. In a very real sense, the pain signals can become embedded in the spinal cord, like a painful memory.
If any pain keeps you from living a normal, active life, you deserve treatment. Allopathic medicine uses drug treatment to decrease inflammation and reduce pain by blocking inflammatory mediators. Drugs known as analgesics can be useful but what about chronic pain? Long-term side-effects can include stomach bleeding, bone demineralization, kidney damage and even nutritional deficiencies.
Natural pain remedies are often as effective as drugs but without the side-effects. These painkillers include food choices, supplements, phytonutrients, herbs and homeopathic remedies. Let's explore a non-drug approach to pain.
Avoid foods and other materials to which you find you're allergic. Common food allergens include corn, shellfish, citrus fruits, eggs and nuts. Allergens can result in seemingly unrelated pain and inflammation in various parts of the body.
Choose foods that can reduce the body's inflammatory response. Cranberry juice can ease the pain of urinary tract infections. Peppermint oil helps soothe digestive tract pain. Do you suffer with inflammatory bowel diseases? High-fibre foods such as grains, vegetables and legumes often reduce the inflammation involved with these disorders. Fresh elderberries can relieve pain, fight infection and aid healing in skin conditions and injured body structures.
Choose a diet low in saturated fatty acids dairy and meats and high in the phytoestrogens found in soy, legumes and vegetables.
Check your intake of essential fatty acids. Omega-3 oil, from fish oils and flax seeds, is effective in reducing arthritic pain and inflammation. Omega-6 fatty acids from nuts, seeds and oils from sunflower, safflower, borage and evening primrose sometimes work to reduce inflammation in a way quite similar to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Aspirin. However, for omega-6 oils to be effective against pain, NSAIDs, food additives and high doses of vitamin E must be avoided, and essential nutrient co-factors, such as vitamins B3, B6 and C, and the minerals biotin, zinc and magnesium, must be in sufficient supply.
Increase carbohydrate intake potatoes, rice, pasta and bread to boost the amino acid tryptophan, which raises levels of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical.
Solid nutrition can combat pain by improving circulation and balancing hormones. In severe cases, eliminating pain may require cutting out animal fats entirely via a vegan diet.
Vitamin B6 has analgesic properties and increases resistance to pain. It's used to make the neurotransmitters, serotonin and GABA that inhibit pain impulses. Vitamin B6 is particularly useful in carpal tunnel syndrome because it reduces swelling in the hands. This B vitamin also soothes nerve pain from diabetes, headaches and temporo-mandibular joint syndrome, or TMJ.
Lysine, an amino acid, may speed up the healing process. Supplements containing lysine can be taken as directed. Lysine-rich foods include chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, fish, cheese, mung bean sprouts and brewer's yeast.
Phenylalanine is an amino acid derived from animals, nuts, vegetables and bacteria. It was reported to have natural pain-relieving effects in arthritis, bursitis, low-back pain, myalgia, neuralgia, migraine, PMS, headaches and sports injuries. It should not be taken if you are pregnant, diabetic or have high blood pressure.
Methyl sulphonyl methane (MSM) is a sulphur compound that occurs abundantly in nature. It is naturally present in the body and is able to regulate fluids and nutrients into the cells, and the elimination of toxins out of the cells, which reduces pain and inflammation and promotes healing. It is also able to block the pain response in nerve fibres and reduce scar tissue, allowing repair and healing to take place.
Body levels of sulphur are often low because every time the body removes invading toxins from the cell, it also removes the sulphur compounds. Extra sulphur in supplemental form is useful for rheumatoid arthritis, disc problems in the back, acute injuries, tendonitis, bursitis and muscle cramps.
Herbs and Phytonutrients
Boswellia serrata derives from a deciduous tree of the same name and is also known as Indian frankincense or olibanum. The gum resin prevents formation of leukotrienes one of those pain triggers and reduces pain of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, soft tissue rheumatism, low-back pain, myositis and fibrositis. The therapeutic action includes reduction in joint swelling, increased mobility and alleviation of morning stiffness.
Boswellia serrata has no side-effects and is even safe to use during pregnancy. Its analgesic and sedative effects work much like morphine. A supplement of 200 to 400 milligrams daily can be taken. A Boswellia serrata cream may be used topically.
Most people recognize turmeric as the yellow colour in curry powder. But it also has great importance as a medicinal herb due to the presence of several phenolic compounds called curcumin, dimethoxycurcumin and bisdimethoxycurcumin. These chemicals have anti-inflammatory properties comparable to Aspirin. Also, turmerin another active component of turmeric has potent antioxidant effects and may contribute to anti-inflammatory action. Dosages of 500 mg of tumeric, one to three times a day, can alleviate the symptoms of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and stomach pains.
The active component of cayenne pepper is capsaicin. Topical application stimulates and blocks small pain fibres by depleting them of the neurotransmitter substance P that mediates pain impulses. Cream made from 0.025 to 0.075 per cent capsaicin, applied four times daily, may help some pain such as that of bursitis, headache or arthritis. Taken orally, it can cause stomach cramps; take 500-mg capsules with food, as tolerated.
Ginger inhibits the synthesis of pro-inflammatory triggers, prostaglandins, thromboxanes and leukotrienes and therefore has pain-relieving effects. It is useful in treating stomach ache, rheumatism, gastrointestinal problems, arthritis, toothache and migraine. However, it is contraindicated in kidney disease. Half an inch of fresh ginger can be taken daily in the diet; supplement doses can range between 500 and 2,000 mg daily; or boil a strong tea with two teaspoons (10 mg) of fresh ginger per cup of water.
Numerous other herbs and nutrients can alleviate pain and inflammation, including bromelain, quercetin, echinacea, angelica, peppermint oil, aloe vera and feverfew. Look for herbs with analgesic, antispasmodic or anti-inflammatory properties. Analgesics work by reducing pain signals to the brain. Antispasmodics help relax muscle spasms. Anti-inflammatory herbs reduce redness, swelling, pain and loss of function.
Homeopathy can also prove useful in this situation. Ferr phos is excellent for inflammatory, congestive pain that gets worse with motion.
Mag phos is useful for spasmodic, cramping muscles or shooting nerve pains that feel better with warmth. Calc phos is recommended for pains associated with numbness and cold, and creeping sensations that are usually worse at night and in cold, wet weather. Use Kali sulph for pains that wander and shift location. These pains are worse when overheated and are better in open air and with gentle movement.
However, there is no single remedy that will suit everyone. And appropriate dosages vary. A homeopath and/or natural health-oriented doctor can help you to choose the best treatment and dosage for you. More important, your practitioner will look for the underlying causes of your condition, which may clarify the actions needed to help your body to heal.
If the pain returns frequently for months or years, don't just "tough it out.” You could teach your body that feeling pain is normal and bring on a chronic pain condition. In the short term, as you're seeking a more permanent solution, some of these natural remedies could bring you much-needed relief from pain.
The estimated cost of chronic pain to Canada, in the form of lost productivity, lost income and medical expenses, is $10 billion a year.
Resource: North American Chronic Pain Association of Canada: 60 Lorne Ave., Dartmouth, NS B2Y 3E7 Phone: 1-866-470-PAIN (7246); Website: chronicpaincanada.org /index.htm. This Web site lists virtually all independent pain clinics for every Canadian location.