I get it, it’s so easy to just pop pills to manage pain. In my career as a Nurse Practitioner in an often busy AF (as the kids say) ER, I’m guilty as charged. But when someone is in agony, there’s no other choice. Ain’t nobody got time for a 90-minute patient intake and wait for the effects of natural supplements like omega-3s to kick in.
But there’s a deep, dark downside to relying on over-the-counter medicine for chronic pain management. Whether it’s acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Aspirin, naproxen (Aleve), and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), they can damage your liver. (And for the purposes of this article, let’s not even get into opiate painkiller abuse.)
So what can you do if you’re frequently in pain but don’t want your liver to turn into a toxic waste dump? Is there a natural approach to chronic pain management?
Can Chronic Pain Be Managed Without OTCs?
The short answer is yes. One of the reasons I decided to become a functional medicine practitioner is to help people discover the root causes of their pain and help them reclaim their health and wellness. That lofty, and yes, I admit, slightly foo-foo-sounding goal sounds great on paper, but in the real world, does functional medicine work for chronic pain management?
(By the way, if you’re not sure what functional medicine is, here’s how one of the most respected functional medicine doctors, Dr. Mark Hyman, M.D., describes it: It shifts the traditional disease-centered focus of medical practice to a more patient-centered approach and addresses the whole person, not just an isolated set of symptoms. Functional medicine practitioners spend time with their patients, listening to their histories and looking at the interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and complex, chronic disease to support the unique expression of health and vitality for each individual.)
In other words, working with a functional medicine practitioner like yours truly isn’t an In-And-Out visit. And one of the ways I can help you recover from chronic pain is through targeted supplementation.
What The Heck Is Targeted Supplementation?
Instead of taking a couple of pain pills and hoping for the best, targeted supplementation involves using specific vitamins, minerals, and botanical extracts (herbs) to address the underlying factors contributing to chronic pain. Based on your medical history and the diagnostic lab tests I order and interpret for you, I can determine which supplements are most appropriate to help manage your pain.
So what do I have in mind for you? It could be omega-3 fatty acids. You may have heard that omega-3s are abundant in wild salmon. Does that mean that I’ll have you hold a piece of raw salmon skin on where your body is hurting? Ew, gross. Nope, but I may recommend high-dose, professional-grade omega-3 fatty acid supplements and/or fish oil. In high doses, EPA, and to a lesser extent, DHA, two of the three omega-3 fatty acids, have potent anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic pain is an indication that there’s systemic inflammation.
The hope is that taking a proper omega-3 supplement (not just any GNC or Walmart supplement will do), will help modulate the inflammatory response, potentially reducing pain intensity and improving joint function.
Another potentially-powerful supplement I may recommend for your pain is curcumin. It’s the main compound in the yellow spice, turmeric. Out of any supplement on the market, curcumin is one of the most well-studied. There’s nearly 3,000 studies on PubMed for curcumin and inflammation. Some studies show that curcumin may help with autoimmune-related inflammatory conditions like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Personally, I think that there’s a lot of scare-mongering online about how many people have magnesium deficiency. Some articles claim 90% don’t get enough of this mineral, which is essential for muscle relaxation and nerve function. Actually, true magnesium deficiency affects at most 20% of the population, according to research in the journal Open Heart.
But if you’re going through menopause, the online scare tactics might not be far off. The same research study says magnesium deficiency has been found in 84% of postmenopausal women with osteoporosis.
And if you’re not getting enough Mg in your diet, it can cause muscle cramps and spasms, which are common in chronic pain conditions. So if I recommend a specific magnesium supplement for you, it may help ease muscle tension.
Like magnesium, there seems to be an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency. Sadly, the Covid pandemic shined a spotlight on this. People who were really lacking in vitamin D had worse outcomes with the highly-contagious virus. Low D levels have also been linked to chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia.
We often think of vitamin D in terms of bone health and immune function. Now it’s time to start recognizing its effects on chronic pain management. But if you live in Florida and spend most of your day working on your tan, you still may have low vitamin D levels! It’s complicated but true. The only way to know for sure is to have your serum level checked, which I can order for you.
With all of these supplements, you will be popping pills like candy. But at least they won’t be toxic to your liver! So another targeted supplement for chronic pain management I may suggest is B vitamins. This is because they play a role in nerve health and energy metabolism. Certain B vitamins, such as B6 and B12, are involved in nerve function and can be beneficial for individuals with neuropathic pain.
Glucosamine and Chondroitin
If you have joint problems like osteoarthritis, G & C may help with pain management by supporting the cartilage, the cushiony, spongy material between the bones.
A 2020 review of several studies on this plant published in BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies describes this herb, which is also known as Indian frankincense, as a powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic and analgesic agent for osteoarthritis.
N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC):
And here’s one more to make room for in your supplement cabinet: NAC is an amino acid that supports the production of glutathione—the most powerful natural antioxidant in the body. A review of 9 studies in Pain Medicine said it may provide pain relief for certain conditions.
Personalized Supplementation Plans
Instead of guessing which supplements to take (and which ones are of high quality), as a functional medicine expert, I can develop a personalized approach to supplementation for you. I will consider your genetic makeup, nutritional deficiencies, medical history, lifestyle, and current health status when designing a supplementation plan.
If you’re interested in this approach, let’s talk. It might take longer to mitigate your pain than gulping down a few pain pills. But in the long run, you’ll be better off for it. Keep in mind that in the beginning, I may recommend that you continue taking your prescribed pain pills or OTCs. As a functional medicine practitioner, I integrate both Western and complementary approaches.
Until next time…
Jenna Witt, NP