Millions of people are seeking alternatives to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) after studies raised concern about increased risk for heart attack, stroke and blood clots. These drugs have been routine treatment for pain and inflammation associated with acute and chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and minor injuries. Fortunately, natural alternatives can provide safe and effective pain relief.
Irritating foods can cause a variety of symptoms, including acute inflammation. An anti-inflammatory diet, also known as a hypoallergenic diet, avoids all suspect foods for a minimum of two weeks, then reintroduces them in a systematic way to identify any food sensitivities. The ten most common dietary allergens are dairy products, eggs, gluten (a protein in wheat and other grains), soy, peanuts, chocolate, citrus, corn, sugar and nightshade plants, which include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant.
Exercise increases circulation, strengthens muscles around sore joints to stabilize and protect them from further injury and can even have anti-inflammatory effects. For individuals with chronic joint pain, swimming and isometric exercises are the best choices because they strengthen muscles without putting excess stress on joints. Walking programs have helped relieve pain and improve function for individuals suffering from osteoarthritis. Exercise should not be painful, nor should it be initiated without a doctor’s recommendation.
Topical treatments can be very effective for soothing sore muscles and inflamed joints. Hydrotherapy, ultrasound, acupuncture, massage and other touch therapies can be used to increase circulation in inflamed areas, relax tense muscles and relieve pain.
Hydrotherapy is the therapeutic use of hot and cold water. Heat helps muscles relax and can be delivered by a hot, moist towel, hot bath or infrared sauna. Adding magnesium-rich Epsom salt to a bath also helps muscles relax. Ice and cold water help limit swelling and ease pain in acute injuries but heat should not be applied until initial inflammation subsides. If it is applied too early, heat can increase blood flow and subsequent swelling and discomfort in affected areas. For chronic joint pain, alternating hot and cold water treatments are the best way to increase circulation and promote healing.
Homeopathic medicines can address specific symptoms such as pain, stiffness and swelling. Homeopathy is based on the principle that “like cures like.” Substances that cause symptoms in large amounts are used therapeutically in small amounts to treat those same symptoms. Homeopathic remedies are prepared from natural sources and most of them are botanical in origin. For example, Arnica, a common remedy for acute injuries, is derived from a plant in the Asteraceae family. Hundreds of remedies exist, but in theory there is only one correct choice for each person’s specific symptoms. Consult a homeopathic practitioner for an individualized prescription and best results.
Several common kitchen staples are also anti-inflammatory herbs. These include cayenne, chamomile, ginger, licorice, tumeric and mint (wintergreen). Cooking with them or using them to make a therapeutic tea may have a mild anti-inflammatory effect. Stronger botanical preparations can be used to relieve pain and inflammation, but like pharmaceutical medicines, they should be prescribed by a doctor.
Nutrients derived from plants can also be taken as supplements to relieve inflammation. Bioflavonoids, such as quercitin derived from citrus fruit, help decrease inflammation in many ways, from lowering histamine levels to inhibiting formation of pro-inflammatory mediators such as leukotrienes and phospholipase A2.
Bromelain is a proteolytic enzyme derived from pineapple. Taken with food, this nutrient helps digest food; but when taken away from food, it inhibits production of inflammatory prostaglandins and prevents blood clots.
Several vitamins and minerals are essential for reducing inflammation and maintaining healthy tissues. A whole foods diet high in fresh vegetables is the best source, but a multivitamin can supplement when necessary.
Additionally, glucosamine sulfate and/or chondroitin sulfate may help relieve joint pain associated with osteoarthritis by stimulating production of glycosaminoglycans, the molecules used to build connective tissue such as bone and cartilage. Sometimes is it necessary to take these supplements for several weeks before effects are noticed.
Always talk to your doctor before taking any new medications, whether natural or pharmaceutical.