Americans love their prescription medications. We take more prescription medications that any other country in the world and we are paying the price for it.
Deaths from prescription medications is a significant cause of death each year and our healthcare policy makers are trying to figure out how to solve an opioid addiction crisis.
We all experience pain at some time in our lives so we need effective strategies to deal with it, but we need to have methods that have limited or no side effects.
While treating pain is something we all have to do, I highly encourage you to discover the source of your pain and look for a solution to that. Don’t continue to just treat a symptom.
A couple of quick disclaimers. First, nothing you read here (or anywhere on the internet for that matter) should replace the advice of a qualified healthcare professional. If you are taking any prescription medications, make sure you talk to your medical doctor before taking any supplements because they may negatively interact with your medications.
Second, most supplements and medications have not been tested in pregnant women so if you are pregnant, you need to talk with your OB/GYN before taking anything.
This is a long post so I’ve grouped all of them by conditions below so you can just expand the one related to your particular condition or you can just scroll down and read about all of them.
Most people know about using either ice or heat for treating your pain. I wanted to include it in this list though because oftentimes people use them at the wrong times.
More often than not in my office, I have a patient tell me they suffered a recent injury and used heat immediately after the injury.
Conventional thought says that you use ice for the first 48-72 hours after an injury and then you can use heat if needed. The rationale behind this is that immediately following an injury, your body it going to start an inflammation response.
If you use heat, you will open up the vessels in the area thereby increasing the effect of the inflammation and swelling. While it may be pain-relieving initially, you could cause yourself more pain after removing the heat.
Cold, on the other hand, does the opposite. It will constrict the vessels which is supposed to help decrease the swelling and inflammation response. Now lately, there has been some research that questions whether or not this is a good thing.
Inflammation is our body’s way of treating an injury so why would we want to limit it? While this is true, sometimes our inflammation response can get out of hand.
So, the jury is still out on this but as of now, if you need something for the pain immediately following an injury, try ice or a cold pack.
One last thing I want to mention because I hear this in my office a lot is do not put a heating pad on an area and then fall asleep. Same for an ice pack. That can damage the skin in the area.
When using either, you want to use them for about 20 minutes max. and not directly on the skin. Put a towel between your skin and the ice pack/heating pad because you don’t want to damage your skin.
TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. This small device uses an electric current to basically, “shut off” the pain receptors in an area.
Since a TENS unit requires that you place electrodes around the painful area, they are better suited for pain in a specific joint or region, like the low back versus treating general body pain.
These can be handy to have at home if you need some immediate relief.
For instance, if you have some knee or shoulder pain after working in the yard or exercising, you can put on a TENS and some ice and be feeling better pretty quick.
The price for a TENS unit can vary but they are generally pretty affordable. Here’s a TENS unit on Amazon similar to one I sell in my office for right around $30.
I do want to point out that a TENS unit is different than the electrical stimulation (e-stim) machines you will see at your chiropractor’s or physical therapist’s office.
The machines we use have a wider range of frequencies which can do some different things in the body to help with pain relief and healing.
So, if your DC or PT recommend some e-stim to help with your condition, don’t think you can skip out on it because you have a TENS unit at home.
3. Willow bark
Willow bark contains a compound called salicin which is converted to salicylic acid in your body.
If salicylic acid sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what is in aspirin. Willow bark works in a very similar manner as aspirin.
People have used it to treat fever, inflammation, low back pain, and headaches.
The nice thing about salicin though is that it is gentler on your intestinal lining than aspirin so there is less of a chance of experiencing side effects.
Typically, if you have had an adverse to aspirin products in the past, then you do not want to use willow bark.
Also, there is a lack of evidence for use in pregnant women so it is advised that if you are pregnant, don’t use it.
Currently, the recommended daily dose is up to 240mg but I’ve seen willow bark products that contain much higher dosages than this.
Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean you can take as much as you want without experiencing negative side effects. More does not always mean better,
Ginger is a spice that most people have heard of, but not as commonly used in the United States as it is in other parts of the world, like Asia.
It has long been used for its medicinal properties as well.
Ginger can be used to treat nausea and vomiting, particular for pregnant women suffering from morning sickness.
Ginger also has sometimes been shown to help with numerous other health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stomach irritation to name a few.
When it comes to pain, ginger has an anti-inflammatory effect that helps to reduce general musculoskeletal pain, osteoarthritis pain, and migraine headaches.
Because ginger is used in cooking and as a supplement, it comes in a variety of forms. You can buy it as a root or ginger candy and everything in between.
I would recommend using it as close to its natural form as possible. The more processing a nutrient goes through, the less beneficial it becomes.
Like ginger, turmeric is a spice that is commonly used in Asian cuisine. Also, like ginger, turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties. They are similar because turmeric is a part of the ginger family.
In fact, you will often see ginger and turmeric combined in supplement form.
Curcumin is a substance in turmeric that gives turmeric it’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties plus its characteristic yellow color.
Single ingredient supplements of turmeric or curcumin haven’t shown much potential in the research.
Interestingly, turmeric isn’t absorbed by the body that well when it’s not combined with black pepper (specifically piperine which gives black pepper its pungency). So, I’d recommend using turmeric as a spice in your cooking.
While turmeric may help reduce inflammation, its main benefit is that it has been shown to limit the growth of certain types of tumors.
In fact, if you were to look at the incidence of cancer by country (like this one from the World Cancer Research Fund International or this map from globalcancermap.com) you’ll notice that India, where turmeric is used extensively, has very low rates of cancer.
Obviously, cancer is a complicated disease and there are many factors associated with it but there seems to be a correlation.
So, if you’re not sold on using it for its anti-inflammation characteristics, use it for its anti-cancer benefits.
6. Frankincense (Boswellia serrata)
An extract from the Frankincense tree, boswellia serrata is another natural substance that has anti-inflammatory effects.
It’s been shown to help with joint pain, particularly caused by osteoarthritis.
Like turmeric, some preliminary evidence shows that frankincense may have some cancer-fighting abilities as well.
There are a few different ways you can take this supplement. You can get it as a capsule, liquid extract, or as an essential oil.
The amount you take depends on which type of supplement you get so make sure to follow the instructions on your particular supplement.
Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is a source of sulfur for the body. Sulfur is used by your body to help build and repair connective tissue, among other things.
Because of this, you will oftentimes find MSM combined with chondroitin and glucosamine in supplements made to treat joint pain.
Right now, the research shows that MSM is most beneficial for pain associated with osteoarthritis. There are some other conditions it may help like muscle cramps/spasms, general musculoskeletal pain, and GI distress.
A normal dose is anywhere from 1,000-3,000mg a day, divided into multiple doses throughout the day.
8. Vitamin D
Vit. D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin”, has been the topic of a lot of research lately as it has been associated with helping a number of conditions including pain, depression, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and heart disease.
While research is still trying to determine just how much of a factor Vit. D plays in all these conditions, it has been established that people with Vit. D deficiency are more likely to experience musculoskeletal pain. It can be an often overlooked cause of back pain.
Most people in our modern society are deficient in Vit. D because we don’t get outside as much as we used to. There are a number of other factors that can determine how much Vit. D you get when you are outside such as geographic location, skin tone, time of year, and so on.
If you are curious, there is a blood test that will tell you what your current Vit. D level is. An optimal level is between 40-60ng/ml.
If your test results are abnormally low, then your medical doctor may prescribe a large dose of Vit. D that you take typically once a week but most people can take a daily supplement to help them reach that optimal level.
Vit. D is generally fairly safe but if you’ve ever been diagnosed with hypercalcemia (too much calcium in the blood), hyperparathyroidism, cancer, or a thyroid disorder then you’ll want to make sure you are getting your Vit. D levels checked on a regular basis.
9. Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
The polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) I’m specifically talking about are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). While these are naturally found in certain foods, we typically don’t get enough in our diet.
These fatty acids help to reduce inflammation in the body. Not only that, but they’ve been associated with improving other conditions such has hypertension, high cholesterol, certain mental disorders, and diabetes.
Each of the above-mentioned fatty acids come from a different primary source. ALA is found in flaxseed oil, DHA/EPA comes from fish oil, and GLA is in borage oil.
The best way to use these is in combination with each other, especially DHA/EPA and GLA. GLA by itself can actually be pro-inflammatory so always supplement together with DHA/EPA.
These PUFAs will come in capsule and liquid form. In order to get enough of a therapeutic dose, it may be better to use the liquid form and mix it into a morning smoothie.
One complaint that is common when using fish oil capsules is shortly after consuming them, a person will start to experience a fishy aftertaste. One way to avoid this is to take your capsules at night prior to going to sleep. Another way is to look for capsules that are double-coated which is supposed to decrease that particular side-effect.
10. Meditation/Mindfulness/Stress Reduction
Stress and anxiety can manifest in many different ways, including musculoskeletal pain.
If stress is the cause of your pain then you can remove the sources of stress, which may me changing jobs if needed or learn some better strategies for dealing with your stress.
One commonly employed strategy is meditation
Meditation has recently become more popular and the research seems to back up its benefits.
Not only does meditation help with stress reduction, it has been shown to have numerous other health benefits as well.
A lot of people have the misconception that to meditate you have to lock yourself in a closet, sit cross-legged, burn some incense, and hum.
That’s not what meditation is. Meditation is just focusing on the current moment and allowing your mind to relax.
You can meditate in many different ways so I’d encourage you to do some searching online and look at different resources that can help you find a method that works for you.
A common cause of pain is due to muscle tightness. This muscle tightness can be a result of numerous causes from injury to bad posture and a number of things in between.
Muscle tightness can cause pain in a couple of different ways.
First, when your muscles are tight they can pull on your bones/joints where they attach causing abnormal movement patterns which can lead to wear and tear on your joints. If that is what is going on with you, then a massage may be helpful but stretching and improving flexibility might be more beneficial (check out #16).
The second common cause of pain in a muscle is trigger points. These are nodules or tight bands of within the muscle that will generally feel painful when pressed on.
Trigger points respond well to massage. Although the pressure may initially cause pain, the continued pressure of a massage can help the trigger point release, allowing the muscles to relax.
When looking for a massage therapist, ask friends or family who they would recommend.
You can also ask your chiropractor. I don’t currently have a massage therapist in my office so I commonly refer patients to a handful of massage therapists that I know do a good job and that my patients are happy with.
12. Essential Oils
Essential oils have become a popular natural treatment for what seems to be just about everything nowadays. I’m sure most of us know at least someone that is currently a big proponent of essential oils.
There are a number of oils that are useful for different types of pain conditions, like headaches, inflammation, arthritis, and so on.
“Wait! What?! Doesn’t exercise hurt?! Why would I want to do that?”
Exercise doesn’t have to make you sore and even if it does, it’s only for a brief period of time. The benefits far outweigh any brief soreness you may feel.
If you suffer from osteoarthritis (OA) pain then exercise is one of the best things you can do to improve your pain.
Exercise can help in a number of ways. For starters, one of the main influences of whether or not you get OA is excessive weight.
So if you lose some of those extra pounds, then you’ll decrease your chance of getting OA or can decrease your symptoms if you already have it.
Exercise can also help decrease your pain through stress reduction (see #10) and through the release of endorphins.
Endorphins help reduce pain sensation in the body and give you an overall positive feeling. This is what causes a “runner’s high” or a post-exercise “high” that you may have read or heard someone talk about before.
I talk about the benefits of exercise frequently on my blog but check out this great article on the benefits of exercise from Harvard Magazine.
Of course, you know I have to talk about chiropractic. I mean, this article is on a chiropractic blog for goodness sakes!
If you are suffering from joint-related pain, then it is worth giving chiropractic a try. In most chiropractic offices, an adjustment is just one of the types of treatments used.
Many times your chiropractor will give you exercises or stretches to perform either in the office or at home which will help you get better.
Some will also make nutritional recommendations that could include diet changes or supplements (some that are included in this list) that will help decrease your inflammation, helping you heal faster.
The American College of Family Physicians recent recommendations for back pain treatment stated patients should try conservative care first which includes chiropractic.
Research shows that people with back pain that begin their care with a chiropractor versus a medical doctor are less likely to have back surgery, spend less money, and be happier with the care they receive.
If you’ve never been to a chiropractor and are unsure about what to expect, you can check out my free report about choosing a chiropractor by clicking here.
15. Epsom Salts
A quick Google search will show you many uses around the house for Epsom salts, also known as magnesium sulfate, including as a pain reliever.
When it comes to pain relief, Epsom salts are most commonly used to treat sore muscles.
According to the Epsom Salt Council, place two cups of Epsom salts in a bath and soak for at least 12 minutes to enjoy the benefits.
Other health benefits of Epsom salts include reducing stress, decreasing inflammation associated with gout, skin exfoliation, and constipation relief.
As I mentioned in #11 Massage, tight muscles can be a source of pain, either the muscle itself or from the joint it attaches to/near because of altered motion.
As we get older, we move less and less because of work or because we just don’t want to. As we become more sedentary, our muscles begin to shorten and become tighter.
This problem is compounded by bad posture or poor movement patterns we’ve learned.
Maintaining our flexibility as we age can go a long way in preventing a lot of the aches and pains many people blame on “old age”.
Any stretching program that you can perform on a regular basis is a good thing. I also recommend yoga to a lot of my patients.
Yoga is a great practice that not only improves your flexibility but also improves balance and reduces stress.
You can find yoga classes at your local gym or a nearby yoga studio. If you can’t or don’t want to take a class, you can find beginner yoga routines on various websites or on Youtube.
Everyone knows that being in pain can lead to a poor night’s rest but did you know that lack of sleep can lead to pain?
A large of majority of Americans suffer from sleep deprivation. There is a laundry-list of health problems associated with lack of sleep.
These include heart problems, depression, and weight gain (source).
There is also some research that shows poor sleep quality leads to increased frequency of migraines (source).
So before you decide to binge-watch your new favorite TV show on Netflix at 9 P.M., you might want to save it for the morning and get some sleep.
Dehydration can cause pain in two primary ways. The first one and the one most people are familiar with is muscle cramping.
If you’ve ever participated in an extended physical activity on a hot day, then you may have experienced these types of cramps.
The other way that dehydration can lead to pain is related to your spine. Your discs which separate your vertebra are mostly water.
Imagine these discs act like a sponge. As you go about your day, you are continually putting pressure on your disc, squeezing out fluid.
As a matter of fact, if you were to measure yourself in the morning right after your get out of bed and then in the evening right before you go to bed, you will be shorter.
During the night while you sleep, your discs re-hydrate and the cycle starts all over in the morning.
If you are chronically dehydrated, then your disc height is going to be decreased which can put pressure on the surrounding structures. Your discs will also not be as effective as shock-absorbers if they are not properly hydrated.
Your discs will also not be as effective as shock-absorbers if they are not properly hydrated.
The two most common ways to tell if you are properly hydrated are your urine color and the skin turgor test.
When you go to the bathroom, your urine should be a light yellow or straw color. If it is darker than that, then it can indicate that you are dehydrated.
To perform the skin turgor test, you simply pinch some of the skin on the back of your hand and release. Your skin should snap back onto your hand.
If it slowly returns to the back of the hand, then you may be dehydrated.
Use these two indicators to determine if you should be drinking more water or not.
Acupuncture is becoming more accepted today as a method to treat a number of different conditions.
People have reported improvement with allergies, headaches, depression, and a whole slew of other conditions (check out this list for further info).
When it comes to pain specifically, acupuncture has shown effectiveness for back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, headaches, joint pain, sciatica, and tennis elbow.
Finding an acupuncturist is similar to finding a chiropractor (or any other health practitioner for that matter).Ask friends or family for recommendations.
Ask any manual therapists you visit, like your chiropractor, physical therapist, or massage therapist, if they have an acupuncturist they refer patients/clients too.
You can also look for acupuncturists at this site from the Acupuncture Now Foundation. It contains a few links that will help you find licensed/certified acupuncturists.
One last tip when it comes to acupuncture. Don’t give too much weight to friends or family members that tell you it doesn’t work because they tried it once and it didn’t help them.
Acupuncture, just like all other health treatments, works for some people and doesn’t work for other people. It depends on the cause of your pain and on the method used to treat your particular condition.
There are at least 360 acupuncture points and, depending on the source, possibly up to 2,000. Many points are indicated in multiple conditions so finding the right combination to treat your specific problem can be a little bit of trial-and-error.
Make sure to communicate clearly with your acupuncturist any changes or lack thereof so they can find the right treatment for you.
20. Paraffin baths
Paraffin wax baths are limited to treating conditions of the hands and feet.
If you are unfamiliar with a paraffin bath, it is a small tub that is filled with heated paraffin wax mixed with mineral oil. You then dip your hand or foot into the wax and remove it so the wax dries.
You repeat the dipping process anywhere from five to twelve times to create a waxy “glove” and then leave it on your hand/foot till the warming effect wears off in about 20 minutes.
These are a good treatment option for someone suffering from arthritis particularly rheumatoid arthritis.
There are a couple of precautions you need to be aware of before using a paraffin bath.
First, if you have decreased sensation in your hands/feet, you shouldn’t use one because you are at a higher risk of getting burned.
Also, if you have any open wounds/sores you can’t use one.
Lastly, I would recommend using a device specifically made for a paraffin bath because it will keep the temperature of the wax at an appropriate level.
You can find a number of paraffin baths online ranging from about $40 for a consumer-grade version up to almost $200 for a professional/medical-grade bath.
Resveratrol gained fame a few years ago when it was reported that red wine in moderation helped improve heart health.
Later, it was discovered that it may be the resveratrol, which is found in the skin of grapes, that gave the benefits and not so much the red wine.
Resveratrol is found in peanuts, blueberries, cranberries, dark chocolate in addition to grapes.
Since the heart-health discovery, resveratrol has also been shown to help prevent cancer, diabetes, and also helps to reduce pain.
So far, the pain-reducing effects have been seen in people with chronic pain syndromes like fibromyalgia.
As always, getting a particular nutrient from its natural food source is going to be the best way to consume it but there are resveratrol supplements available.
There is some concern that supplementing with resveratrol could interfere with blood-thinning medication like warfarin and NSAID medications but they are generally safe (source).
22. Capsaicin (Capsicum annum)
Capsaicin is the substance in hot peppers that makes them spicy.
For treating pain, you can get capsaicin-containing topical creams to apply to achy joints or sore muscles.
It has been shown to help with diabetic neuropathy, back and neck pain, osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis and some skin disorders such as psoriasis.
You can also use the nasal spray version to help with cluster headaches.
If you don’t eat spicy peppers on a regular basis then you should start off using any capsaicin-containing products sparingly.
That same unpleasantness that can happen with eating a cayenne pepper can be felt on the skin if you are not used to it.
As you become more tolerant to the effects, then you can use more of it to treat your particular problem.
Butterbur and feverfew are two plants that have been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of migraine headaches.
Butterbur has also shown some effectiveness in treating allergy-type symptoms.
In their supplement form, you can find them as single products or sometimes combined into one product.
While generally safe, feverfew should be taken in supplement form instead of as a whole leaf. It is acidic and has been reported to cause mouth sores when the leaves are chewed.
Feverfew can also be somewhat addictive so if you decide to take it for any period of time, don’t stop taking it abruptly. Reducing the amount you are taking slowly over a period of time.
The typical dose for butterbur is 75mg twice daily. Dosing for feverfew is varied based on what type of supplement you use so read the directions with your particular supplement.
24. Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens)
Devil’s claw is a plant found in the desert that has been shown to help with hip pain, low back pain, knee pain, and osteoarthritis pain.
It’s not as common on this side of the Atlantic but has been used for a long time in Europe.
Devil’s Claw can alter how your liver breaks down certain drugs. You can find a list here of some of the drugs that negatively react with Devil’s Claw.
Your best bet is if you are currently taking a prescription medication, then try something else on this list because there is less chance of side effects.
You should also avoid it if you are pregnant.
25. Proteolytic Enzymes
Proteolytic enzymes are substances in the body that break down certain types of proteins in the body. These enzymes include pancreatin, bromelain, papain, trypsin, and alpha-chymotrypsin.
I don’t want to get into all of the biochemistry of what these enzymes do so just know that they help reduce the effects of the inflammatory process.
Proteolytic enzymes are typically used following an acute injury like sprain/strain, cuts/bruises or after a surgery to help decrease pain, swelling, inflammation, and improve healing.
There has also been some research that shows proteolytic enzymes have some anti-cancer effects and may benefit osteoarthritis pain as well.
You can find supplements that contain multiple enzymes in a single supplement or you’ll see some supplements that contain bromelain only.
Because there are a variety of formulations, dosing depends on your particular supplement. Since these are usually used for acute injuries, you’ll normally take a higher dose initially and then decrease or stop as the injury heals.
Glucosamine, chondroitin, and hyaluronic acid (HLA) have been around for awhile now and are commonly used for joint pain, usually from osteoarthritis.
You’ll almost always find all three of these combined in a single supplement, oftentimes combined with MSM (#7), the most well known being Osteo Bi-flex.
These three substances are the “building blocks” of cartilage so they are intended to help build cartilage, or at the very least slow the destruction of cartilage in the body due to the arthritic process.
If you decide to take one of these supplements, know that they take some time to work. You will usually have to take the recommended amount about 3-4 weeks before you start to notice the effects.
The regular dose is generally around 1500-2000mg a day in divided doses for glucosamine and approximately 1000mg a day for chondroitin.
There is a wide variety of supplements out there. Some will only have glucosamine or chondroitin. Some will have all three and some will have all three plus MSM, all with varying amounts of each component.
So make sure to take a look at the nutrition label on any supplements you are considering. Supplements that contain all three plus MSM are typically better.
27. Cat’s Claw (Uncaria tomentosa)
Cat’s claw is a plant found in South America. There are two species of the plant, Uncaria tomentosa (UT) and Uncaria guianensis (UG).
UT is what is usually found in a cat’s claw supplement, at least in North America.
Cat’s claw has been shown to be most beneficial for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. It also has some benefit for osteoarthritis.
You want to avoid using Cat’s claw if you are pregnant and certain autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis or lupus.
Dosing depends greatly on the manufacturer and the make-up of each particular supplement. Make sure to get one from a quality manufacturer and follow the recommended dose on the bottle.
That’s it for the list! I want to reiterate that you should consult with a healthcare professional to find the best solution for your particular problem.
Remember that pain is a symptom, not a cause. Work with your healthcare team to determine the cause of your pain and treat that.
You may not be able to get rid of all your pain all of the time, but by treating the source, you are more likely to experience greater relief from your pain.
Be proactive about your health. The more we do to keep ourselves healthy, the less likely we are to need prescription medications or anything on this list.
Eat healthy, move often, and reduce/manage stress. Do those three things and you will be well on your way to a healthy lifestyle.