Overcoming Pain

Why people experience chronic pain, and the power they have to de-intensify it

Nutrition and Chronic Pain

You ache what you ate.

A remedy for at least some degree of chronic pain might be found in the foods we eat, and thus under the self-control we convince ourselves we lack.

Of course, any "pain-lowering" diet one might stumble upon while surfing the internet must be considered thoughtfully; as a reader will surely read of the wonders of everything from a gluten-free cookie to a gin-soaked raisin. Unfortunately, there is little human data to confirm the claims: The studies are small, and the claims of benefit in pain management sometimes grandiose.

Foods that may help control chronic pain in conditions such as fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis include cherries, soy, oranges, peaches, asparagus, cranberries, cauliflower and kiwi. In the case of an inflammatory illness such as rheumatoid arthritis, dairy products, chocolate, eggs, meat, wheat, corn and nuts can theoretically worsen inflammation.

Confronted with so many potentially positive and negative choices, many physicians and other health care providers suggest avoiding foods thought to contribute to chronic pain for perhaps a month, followed by a consecutive reintroduction of each particular food every couple of days. Researchers have helped shine some light on the advantages of certain foods, allowing perhaps for the reduction in the number of foods one must eliminate and reintroduce in such little food experiments.

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For example, scientists at Michigan State University found that cherries contain the anti-oxidants known as anthocyanins, which in turn could play a role in reducing inflammation. Another group at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio isolated a significant amount of melatonin from cherries. Melatonin is the hormone found in the pineal gland of the brain, and is associated with combating insomnia. It is well known that more sleep generally results in less pain.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that patients with neck or back pain who took 1200 mg per day of omega-3 free fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid and decosahexaenoic acid) found in fish oil supplements in addition to their non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) were satisfied (by an 80% margin) with the pain-relieving effects. A majority (59%) of subjects in this study discontinued taking their prescription NSAID for pain relief, and 60% declared that their overall pain had improved. It would appear that omega-3 free fatty acid fish oil supplements are an alternative to NSAIDs (which of course have potential side effects, including kidney and liver disease, and bleeding stomach ulcers).

Other studies have found soy-containing diets suppress chronic neuropathic pain, at least in rats. In one study, scientists from Hadassah University Hospital fed rats two soy-free diets and a soy-containing one for 28 days. It was found that the soy-containing diet prevented the development of tactile and heat allodynia. Of course, future studies will only tell whether there is a role for a soy diet in humans suffering from chronic pain.

So, it may be that the foods you eat render your chronic pain worse, or better. Only the one who eats is the one who will know whether a given diet improves chronic pain. More definitive studies need to be performed before the hunger for knowledge of those with chronic pain, not to mention the stockholders of Whole Foods Market, can be satisfied.

 

Mark Borigini, M.D., is a board-certified rheumatologist who has devoted his career to treating illnesses that cause chronic pain and disability.

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