Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Nearly half of American adults have experienced some type of recurring pain in the past 12 months, according to a Gallup survey of more than 350,000 people, and the national costs, including health care and time off work, total between $560 and $635 billion annually.
For chronic or recurring pain, treatment often masks symptoms with pain medications rather than seeking to identify and correct underlying causes, which require treatment from a health care professional in some cases, and lifestyle changes in others. These 10 causes are frequently ignored or hidden.
1. Low Thyroid
“Achiness is one of the main symptoms of low thyroid,” says Nancy Evans, ND, of Holtorf Medical Group, an integrative medical practice in California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania (holtorfmed.com). Morning stiffness, sore soles of the feet, fatigue, weight gain, and depression are other common signs. Taking a multi with iodine and getting 200 mcg of selenium daily helps to maintain thyroid health for some people. Unfortunately, conventional doctors may misdiagnose thyroid hormone deficiency as “normal,” leaving many people without relief. For treatment information and to take an online thyroid test, visit the National Academy of Hypothyroidism at nahypothyroidism.org.
2. Low Sex Hormones
In women who are approaching or have gone through menopause, low estrogen, which triggers hot flashes and other uncomfortable symptoms, can eventually cause achiness. “It starts with a parched, dry feeling in the hips,” says Evans. To prevent or reverse it, she recommends taking 150 mg daily of Pueraria mirifica, available as an individual supplement and in formulas.
As men get older, low testosterone can lead to unusual soreness after exercise, as well as less strength and stamina. Evans recommends taking 1,000 mg daily of Tribulus terrestris and 2,000 mg daily of l-arginine. If arginine triggers a herpes outbreak, take 2,000 mg of l-lysine, twice daily, and then 500-1,000 mg daily for maintenance.
For both men and women, if supplements don’t help, Evans recommends getting hormone levels tested by an integrative or naturopathic health practitioner. To find one in your area, visit acam.org or naturopathic.org.
3. Chronic Infections
A chronic infection, such as Epstein-Barr, can underlie chronic pain and needs to be diagnosed and treated by a knowledgeable health care professional. Lyme disease, the fastest-growing bug-borne infectious disease in the United States, is often overlooked and can mimic serious conditions, including Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders.
Although Lyme disease is transmitted by ticks, less than half of patients recall having been bitten or have the telltale red rash shaped like a bull’s-eye. Joint pain can eventually develop, usually in a few of the large joints. Most often one or both knees hurt, intermittently or constantly. Effective treatment-which conventional physicians may not be trained to deliver-requires an integrative approach, including targeted antibiotics and nutrients to support the immune system. To find a knowledgeable physician, visit ilads.org.
“Sugar can be a huge cause of the inflammatory process and pain, including headaches,” says Evans, who recommends eliminating all sources, including sodas and other sweetened drinks, and processed carbohydrates such as refined breads, cakes, crackers, cookies, and pastas. Some people need to eliminate all grains. Eat healthy fats in fish, organic or grass-fed meat and poultry, and olive oil, as well as plenty of vegetables. In addition, supplement daily with fish oil, enough to get 2,000-3,000 mg of the combination of EPA and DHA (amounts are listed in the Supplement Facts panel). Consult with your doctor if you are taking any anticoagulant (anti-clotting) medications.
5. Body Fat
“Weighing too much is a purveyor of inflammation, and drops your threshold of pain, whether it’s from rheumatoid arthritis or an ingrown toenail,” says Joe Colella, MD, author of The Appetite Solution and a specialist in bariatric surgery and nutrition. Internal belly fat generates the most inflammation, but any gain of 5-10 pounds is, he says, an alarm bell.
Many patients who seek bariatric surgery don’t actually need it, but don’t realize that sugar drives weight gain. To lose weight, Colella recommends gradually eliminating sugars and refined carbohydrates, getting 30-40 percent of your calories from lean protein, eating protein before other foods at every meal, and getting regular exercise.
6. Lack of Sleep
“Some studies show that 80 percent of us don’t get enough sleep,” says Colella, “Yet lack of sleep increases stress hormones and leads to inflammation.” One study found that getting extra sleep reduced pain sensitivity as much as 60 mg of codeine. In addition to allowing enough time for sleep, Colella recommends skipping caffeine after noon and turning down the thermostat to keep your bedroom temperature no warmer than 69 degrees. “We get more restorative sleep in cooler environments,” he says.
7. Food Intolerances
A delayed reaction rather than an immediate, life-threatening one, intolerance of certain foods can damage the intestinal lining, allowing food particles to seep into the circulatory system and trigger inflammation and pain. “By identifying food intolerances, you can avoid these offending agents and allow your body time to repair itself, so that your defense mechanisms are up and running and the inflammatory cycle is put to a halt,” says Lauren Beardsley, ND, of Integrative Health in Scottsdale, Ariz. Offending foods can be identified by an elimination diet or by testing, best done with a naturopathic health professional.
8. Food Additives
“Food additives and preservatives have been linked to a variety of chronic pain conditions, ranging from fibromyalgia and joint pain to migraines,” says Beardsley. “These disguised substances can lead to the disruption of nerve communication, congestion of lymphatic drainage, and generalized inflammation-all of which can manifest as chronic pain.” Chief ones to avoid are artificial sweeteners and MSG, disguised under many names on food labels, including hydrolyzed protein, textured protein, and yeast extract. For a list of MSG sources, visit truthinlabeling.org/hiddensources.html.
9. Calcium-Magnesium Imbalance
“Symptoms of magnesium deficiency and calcium excess include migraines, other headaches, muscle pain, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, neck pain, back pain, nerve pain, painful periods, post-exercise pain, surgery pain, knee pain, hip pain, foot pain, joint pain,and chest pain,” says Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, author of The Magnesium Miracle. Most likely, you get enough calcium from your diet, she says, and recommends getting 600 mg daily of magnesium. Baths with Epsom salt are a relaxing way to get a small amount of magnesium. To identify your personal needs, get a Magnesium RBC test at requestatest.com.
Studies show that lack of physical activity predisposes healthy people to develop chronic pain later in life. In contrast, getting some regular exercise-as little as one hour per week-reduces risk, and helps to counteract the pain-promoting effects of being overweight.
Natural Pain Rx
“Prescription and over-the-counter drugs can make chronic pain worse, since many medications are designed to block the transmission of pain from the site to the brain, and over time, nerves send even stronger pain signals,” says Dave
Foreman, RPh, ND, known as The Herbal Pharmacist (herbalpharmacist.com). Natural remedies don’t block nerve signals, but work chiefly by reducing inflammation that underlies and drives the sensation of pain. Although many medications are also anti-inflammatory, they typically raise the risk of stomach bleeding, while natural remedies do not have the same worrisome side effect.
OVERALL PAIN RELIEF
As an overall natural pain reliever, Foreman recommends Perluxan, a patented extract of hops. “It works on five different levels of inflammation and is also a really good antioxidant,” he says. Studies have found that 1,000 mg of Perluxan reduces pain-causing chemicals in the human body about as much as 400 mg (typically two tablets) of ibuprofen, but is safer.
Perluxan (also called “hops with 30% alpha acids” on supplement labels) is generally found in formulas, along with other anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric, ginger, white willow bark, and the enzymes bromelain, papain, and serrapeptase. These enzymes aid in digestion, but also have an anti-inflammatory effect in the whole body, and are especially helpful in reducing muscle pain. Take enzymes between meals for pain relief.
“Each one of these approaches pain and inflammation in a very similar yet different way,” says Foreman. The net result is a synergy that is more effective than one single ingredient for relief from both temporary and chronic pain.
Studies have shown that several supplements target joint stiffness and pain when taken consistently. Expect relief in about two weeks or so. These include:
Celadrin (1,000 mg daily): A fatty acid, it decreases inflammation, lubricates cell membranes, and helps restore fluids that cushion joints and bones.
Glucosamine sulfate (1,500 mg daily): A natural building block of cartilage in joints, glucosamine slows breakdown of cartilage and stimulates its growth. Since it works in a somewhat different way than Celadrin, the two are synergistic. Glucosamine is often taken with chondroitin (400-1,200 mg daily), which also helps to lubricate joints.
Other helpful supplements for joint health include hyaluronic acid, types 1 and 3 collagen, BioCell Collagen, curcumin, and MSM.
Topical creams work by calming inflammation and pain, and they can be applied to any painful part of the body where there is no open wound. Try Celadrin, arnica, or capsaicin creams for pain. Balms and creams made with pain-relieving Chinese herbs also are effective and fast-acting. For best results, combine topical creams with oral supplements.
One study found that getting extra sleep reduced pain sensitivity as much as 60 mg of codeine.
5 Products to Ease Your Pain
1. Dr. Venessa’s Formulas Thyroid Balance has selenium, iodine, and a range of other important nutrients for thyroid health.
2. Nature’s Answer Pueraria Mirifica addresses the hormonal link to pain in menopausal women and includes DIM.
3. Olympian Labs BioCell Collagen helps alleviate arthritis pain by lubricating and cushioning joints, tendons, and ligaments.
4. Rainbow Light TheraMend targets pain and stiffness with the help of Perluxan hops, curcumin, and other anti-inflammatory nutrients.
5. Redd Remedies Muscle Ease offers three forms of magnesium, along with potassium, trace minerals, and Jamaica dogwood.