Pain of any kind can be extremely troubling. Whether it’s dull and chronic or sharp and newly induced, it’s reasonable to want relief as soon as possible. Considering that pain can escalate over time and can be caused by virtually anything, it’s important to find a tailored solution that works for you. For many people, that means utilizing an over the counter (OTC) medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Overuse of these drugs, however, can have serious consequences. Last year, the FDA warned that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like these can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. That’s why many have turned to alternative medicine to help soothe their aches and pains.
If you haven’t tried any kind of alternative treatment or medicine before, you might be skeptical. It’s worth exploring, though, if you have a serious OTC habit. In fact, 38 percent of American adults use some kind of complementary alternative medicine according to the National Center For Complementary and Integrative Health. Janet Zand, O.M.D., notes that once people figure out the alternative remedy that’s best for them and their specific type of pain, it’s sometimes possible over time “to move for example to half the dose of conventional OTC pain reliever after adding in a natural one.” Ideally, after awhile you might even be able to skip your OTC medicine altogether. Plus, there are often positive side effects from natural pain relievers, since many of them have more than one use. Before starting any new pain relief regimen (natural or otherwise), Zand recommends checking in with your health practitioner first about appropriate substances for your symptoms, potential drug interactions and correct dosage.
Here are some natural remedies that will help soothe your pain that are both tried-and-true by health practitioners and scientific studies.
1. Ice and Heat
Best for: Muscle and joint pain, cramping pain
Why it works: While this might not be the most surprising treatment, ice and heat are nature’s most intrinsic treatments for pain. Heat is ideal for chronic pain, while ice is better for inflammation or a relatively recent injury. This is because heat increases blood flow to the painful area, which relaxes tight muscles and joints, and ice constricts blood vessels which numbs pain. Check out this handy infographic from the Cleveland Clinic, which explains when to use heat versus ice.
How to use it: Apply an ice pack, damp cloth, heating pad or heat wrap for 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off.
Best for: Any kind of inflammation, especially arthritis
Why it works: Found in turmeric, curcumin is one of the more well-researched natural pain relievers. While larger-scale studies are still needed to completely understand all of its uses, it’s been confirmed that it does help alleviate inflammation and some pain. A 2016 study found that the supplement was effective in combatting exercise-induced muscle soreness, and a 2012 study found it effective as part of treatment for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Curcumin is also currently being studied for several other purposes, notably as part of treatment for and prevention of colorectal cancer.
How to use it: Some people wonder whether eating food with turmeric is enough to get curcurmin’s benefits. According to Zand, “food seasoned with turmeric is healthy but is most likely not a therapeutic dose. It is a good healthy habit to eat it, but if you are experiencing pain don’t expect a bowl of curry to make your pain go away.” She recommends looking for a pill supplement that contains 95 percent curcuminoids. “Generally, the products are standardized,” she notes, and it’s easy to tell from the label exactly how much you’re supposed to take. It should also be added that you should not take more than the recommended dose of this (or any) supplement, as it can cause digestive issues like nausea and diarrhea.
Best for: Bruising, swelling, and inflammation
Why it works: While arnica is one of the most well-known homeopathic methods, there is conflicting research on its effectiveness. Despite this, many people continue to use it. Zand explains that while most of the evidence around arnica’s effectiveness is anecdotal, if it works for you there’s no reason to rule it out. It’s relatively inexpensive and easy to use, so it’s worth a shot — especially for bruising and light swelling.
How to use it: Arnica generally comes in an ointment form, but can also be taken as an oral supplement.
4. Proteolytic Enzymes
Best for: Inflammation, digestive issues
Why it works: These enzymes are naturally made by your pancreas to help digest food, but they can also be ingested as a supplement for additional benefits. Though they’re generally thought of as supplement used to treat inflammation, they are true multi-taskers. In addition to treating pain caused by inflammation in joints they can also help lessen the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other digestive issues.
How to use it: These are taken as an oral supplement. Zand particularly recommends a supplement called Wobenzym. “It works best when taken between meals,” she says, “and you should definitely consult your healthcare practitioner before you start taking it.” Certain types of enzymes are not appropriate for everyone.
5. Willow Bark Extract
Best for: Musculoskeletal pain, back pain
Why it works: Willow bark extract contains salicylic acid, which Zand likes to call “the original aspirin,” since the chemical makeup of the extract is similar to the active ingredients in the OTC drug. This substance has been proven effective in long-term treatment of musculoskeletal disorders as well as back pain, both with and without the aid of OTC pain relievers and other pain management medications. In fact, many people prefer willow bark extract to aspirin because of aspirin’s digestive side effects.
How to use it: Just like aspirin, willow bark comes in pill form, and you should follow the dosage instructions on the packaging.
Best for: All kinds of pain
Why it works: A recent study conducted in the emergency department of a hospital showed promising results of the ancient practice of pricking needles into the skin at specific pressure points. The researchers showed that acupuncture treatments reduced both the pain and anxiety of patients in the emergency room. Additionally, acupuncture boasts the advantage of being one of the most versatile natural pain treatments, as it can help alleviate many different types of pain.
How to use it: The first step to getting pain relief from acupuncture is finding an experienced practitioner. Zand recommends the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine’s database as an amazing resource to find someone highly qualified.
7. Corydalis yanhusuo
Best for: Acute pain, inflammation and nerve pain
Why it works: Corydalis yanhuso is rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. In 2014, it was discovered that the plant, traditionally used for pain relief, contains an analgesic called DHCB. The study calls this discovery a “promising lead in pain management” and more research is being done on exactly how to harness this ancient herb’s powers.
How to use it: This pain reliever can be taken in oral supplement form.
By Julia Bowyer