You're in pain, and ibuprofen just won't cut it. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, don't agree with your stomach, and you're wary of stronger meds.
Fortunately, you have alternatives — natural ones. From herbs that attack inflammation to techniques that leverage the brain's remarkable healing powers, nature offers many treatments for conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and even muscle strains.
Here are eight natural remedies that may enhance or replace conventional antidotes, and leave you happier, healthier, and pain free.
Capsaicin: For arthritis, shingles, or neuropathy
What the science says: An active component of chile pepper, capsaicin temporarily desensitizes pain-prone skin nerve receptors called C-fibers; soreness is diminished for 3 to 5 weeks while they regain sensation. Nearly 40 percent of arthritis patients reduced their pain by half after using a topical capsaicin cream for a month, and 60 percent of neuropathy patients achieved the same after 2 months, according to a University of Oxford study. Patients at the New England Center for Headache decreased their migraine and cluster headache intensity after applying capsaicin cream inside their nostrils.
How to try it: Capsaicin ointments and creams are sold in pharmacies and health stores. For arthritis or neuropathy, try 0.025 percent or 0.075 percent capsaicin cream one to four times daily; best results can take up to 2 weeks, says Philip Gregory, PharmD, a professor at Creighton University and editor of the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. But research on capsaicin and headaches remains limited — and don't expect stronger versions anytime soon: "Current formulations are better suited for more acute problems, like a sore muscle or an arthritis flare-up, than everyday pain and stiffness," Gregory says.
InflaThera or Zyflamend: For arthritis
What the science says: Both supplement brands contain ginger, turmeric, and holy basil, all of which have anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric (a curry ingredient) may be the best: A component, curcumin, eases inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, according to the Methodist Research Institute in Indianapolis. Researchers are now testing Zyflamend in RA patients, but some experts are already sold: "Each herb has its own scientific database of evidence," says James Dillard, MD, author of "The Chronic Pain Solution."
How to try it: ProThera, InflaThera's maker, will only sell to health care professionals, so your doctor has to order it for you; that said, it's reportedly stronger (and slightly cheaper) than Zyflamend. InflaThera's suggested dosage is twice daily with food. For the more readily accessible Zyflamend, take one capsule two or three times daily, but avoid it near bedtime — each pill contains 10 mg of caffeine (another version, Zyflamend PM, is reportedly less stimulating). Buy Zyflamend at swansonvitamins.com or immunesupport.com/zyflamend.htm. Or, save money and try curcumin to start: Taking 500 mg four times daily, along with fish oil and a diet low in animal fat, can ease arthritis, says Jane Guiltinan, ND, immediate past president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
Arnica: For acute injury or post surgery swelling
What the science says: This herb comes from a European flower; although its healing mechanism is still unknown, it does have natural anti-inflammatory properties. Taking oral homeopathic arnica after a tonsillectomy decreases pain, say British researchers, and German doctors found that it reduces surgery-related knee swelling.
How to try it: Use homeopathic arnica as an adjunct to ice, herbs, or conventional pain meds, suggests Guiltinan. Rub arnica ointment on bruises or strained muscles, or take it in the form of three lactose pellets under the tongue up to six times per day. Boiron is among the most reputable arnica manufacturers.
Aquamin: For osteoarthritis
What the science says: This red seaweed supplement is rich in calcium and magnesium. A preliminary clinical study showed that the ingredients may reduce joint inflammation or even help build bone, says David O'Leary of Marigot, Aquamin's Irish manufacturer. In a study of 70 volunteers published in Nutrition Journal, Aquamin users reduced arthritis pain by 20 percent in a month, and had less stiffness than patients taking a placebo.
How to try it: Marigot recommends 2,400 mg a day (two capsules) of Aquamin in tablet form, sold domestically in products such as Aquamin Sea Minerals and Cal-Sea-Um. A 60-pill jar of Swanson Vegetarian Aquamin Sea Minerals costs about $6 at swansonvitamins.com.
SAM-e (S adenosylmethionine): For osteoarthritis
What the science says: SAM-e is made from a naturally occurring amino acid and sold as capsules. Doctors aren't entirely sure why it tamps down pain, but it reduces inflammation and may increase the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine.
Studies by the University of Maryland School of Nursing and the University of California, Irvine, showed that SAM-e was as effective as some NSAIDs in easing osteoarthritis aches; the California researchers found that SAM-e quashed pain by 50 percent after 2 months, though it took a few weeks to kick in. SAM-e produced no cardiovascular risks and fewer stomach problems than the conventional meds.
How to try it: Costco and CVS both carry it; a month's supply costs $30 to $60. Guiltinan prescribes 400 to 1,600 mg daily, often with turmeric or fish oil. SAM-e can interact with other meds, especially MAO-inhibitor antidepressants, so it's vital to talk with your doctor before taking it (and avoid SAM-e entirely if you have bipolar disorder).
Also, inspect the packaging before buying, advises Gregory: Make sure the product carries a USP or GMP quality seal, contains a stabilizing salt, has a far-off expiration date, and comes in foil blister packs — SAM-e can degrade rapidly in direct light.
Fish oil: For joint pain from arthritis or autoimmune disorders
What the science says: Digested fish oil breaks down into hormonelike chemicals called prostaglandins, which reduce inflammation. In one study, about 40 percent of rheumatoid arthritis patients who took cod-liver oil every day were able to cut their NSAID use by more than a third, Scottish scientists recently reported. People with neck and back pain have fared even better: After about 10 weeks, nearly two-thirds were able to stop taking NSAIDs altogether in a University of Pittsburgh study.
How to try it: Taking 1,000 mg is proven to help your heart, but you should up the dose for pain. For osteoarthritis, try 2,000 to 4,000 mg daily; for rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune diseases associated with joint pain (such as lupus), consider a much higher dose of upwards of 8,000 mg daily — but ask your doctor about such a large amount first, says Tanya Edwards, MD, medical director at the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine. (The same rule applies if you take BP or heart meds, as omega-3s can thin the blood.) Read the nutrition label carefully: The dosage refers to the amount of omega-3s in a capsule, not other ingredients. Nordic Naturals (nordicnaturals.com) and Carlson (carlsonlabs.com) are both reputable brands; for something stronger, GNC's Triple-Strength Fish Oil (gnc.com) has 900 mg of omega-3s per capsule.
Methylsulfonyl-methane (MSM): For osteoarthritis
What the science says: MSM is derived from sulfur and may prevent joint and cartilage degeneration, say University of California, San Diego, scientists. People with osteoarthritis of the knee who took MSM had 25 percent less pain and 30 percent better physical function at the end of a 3-month trial at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and Health Sciences. Indian researchers also found that MSM worked better when combined with glucosamine.
How to try it: Start with 1.5 to 3 g once daily and increase to 3 g twice daily for more severe pain, suggests Leslie Axelrod, ND, a professor of clinical sciences at Southwest. Patients in the Indian trial improved on dosages as low as 500 mg three times daily. Vendors of OptiMSM, the brand tested in Axelrod's trial, can be found at optimsm.com.
Counting out loud: For brief "needle stick" pain
What the science says: Patients who counted backward from 100 out loud during an injection experienced and recalled less pain, according to a recent Japanese study. None of the 46 patients who counted complained afterward, and only one of them could remember pain from the injection at all (among the 46 who didn't count, 19 said the injection hurt and 10 recalled what it felt like). Recitation might work by distracting the brain from processing the sensation, says study author Tomoko Higashi, MD, of Yokohama City University Medical Center in Kanagawa, Japan. The trick is probably only useful for short or acute periods, she says, adding: "The degree of pain reduction really depends on how well patients concentrate on counting."