Serious hikers, runners or other athletes call it vitamin I. That's because they pop ibuprofen pills almost like candy. Whether it's Advil, Motrin or the house brand ibuprofen, this nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) is one of the most popular remedies in the pharmacy.
People with arthritis also rely on NSAIDs like ibuprofen, naproxen (Aleve) or a prescription such as diclofenac (Cataflam, Voltaren). The trouble with regular use of NSAIDs, though, is that they can tear up your digestive tract and lead to bleeding ulcers. That's old news.
What's got us worried now is the connection between NSAIDs and heart problems. We've known for a long time that these drugs can raise blood pressure. New research from Denmark suggests that they can also increase the risk for a heart attack, especially in susceptible individuals.
This isn't the first study to suggest that NSAIDs can wreak havoc with the circulatory system. This research suggests that even healthy people may be vulnerable to the negative heart effects of NSAIDs.
Anyone who suffers chronic pain, whether it be from arthritis, bursitis, back problems or foot pain like plantar fasciitis, is caught in a double bind. Even if they turn to something like acetaminophen (Tylenol) to spare their hearts and stomachs, there are still disturbing side effects, such as liver damage. Researchers have discovered that long-term use may be linked to blood cancers (Journal of Clinical Oncology, online May 9, 2011), asthma (American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Jan. 15, 2011) or hearing loss (American Journal of Medicine, March 2010).
So, what can you do for chronic pain? We have been collecting remedies for years. They have the advantage of being safer than most medications and are often less expensive. Here are some popular options:
The first is turmeric, found in curry powder and in yellow mustard. It gives both of them a distinctive color. This Indian spice has anti-inflammatory activity and can be helpful for arthritis (Journal of Family Practice, March 2011). Some people take it in capsules, while others incorporate it into food like scrambled eggs. One caution: people who take warfarin (Coumadin) should avoid turmeric because there may be an interaction.
Another Indian herb, boswellia, is also promising (Clinical Pharmacokinetics, June 1, 2011). As sometimes happens, the veterinarians were out in front with this one. Several years ago, they found that the herb mixed in with food seemed to be helpful for dogs with joint pain. Boswellia isn't usually used as a spice, but can be found as a supplement in health food stores.
Vitamin D should definitely be considered by anyone with joint or muscle pain. So many Americans have low vitamin D levels because we spend most of our time indoors. Getting five or 10 minutes of sun exposure two or three times a week in the summer is a great way to get vitamin D for free, but supplements of 1,000 or 2,000 IU a day are also reasonable (Journal of Investigative Medicine, online March 16, 2011).
We like the anti-inflammatory effects of fish oil and think it is worth adding to the regimen for joint pain, as well as for cardiovascular health. The American diet has lots more pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats in it than the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. While researchers may develop new medications based on fish oil (British Journal of Pharmacology, online March 21, 2011), it's easy to find fish oil liquid or capsules in drugstores, supermarkets or health food stores.
A number of people have told us that cherries, cherry juice or cherry concentrate really help their joint pain. One person who found Celebrex too hard to handle reported tap-dancing (at the age of 79) after a month of daily cherry juice doses. The research here is slim and mostly focused on rats, but cherry compounds seem to counteract the nasty effects of experimentally-induced arthritis (Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology, Sept-Oct 2006). We can't think of a tastier treatment.
We hear frequently about an old-fashioned arthritis remedy, plant pectin (Certo) mixed with grape juice. Compounds found in grapes or wine have been studied for their benefits on the heart, blood vessels and brain, and seem to have potential in preventing cancer and diabetes (Nutrition Reviews, Nov. 2010). The benefits of grape juice, with or without pectin, for arthritis or other chronic pain are strictly anecdotal, but extremely widespread. Many people also are enthusiastic about a remedy that uses grapes in another form, gin-soaked raisins. They often joke about skipping the raisins and going straight for the gin (which is allowed to evaporate before the raisins are eaten). There is so little alcohol left in the completed remedy that we suspect the grape connection is more relevant.