Pain Relief Remedies
Unless you have an extremely rare condition called congenital analgesia, you will almost certainly have experienced pain to some extent at some point in your life. You may also be one of the estimated 10 million people in the UK who experience pain on an almost daily basis. If so, you’ll know only too well how much of an impact pain can have on your quality of life.
However, pain can have a valuable purpose. It can tell you that something may be wrong. It can also range from being a bit of a nuisance – such as a mild headache – to being debilitating, causing extreme discomfort and distress. Pain can be described as throbbing, stabbing, pulsating, pinching or any other number of ways. And it sometimes causes other physical symptoms such as dizziness and nausea, as well as emotional symptoms like anger, irritability, depression and mood swings.
The problem with pain is that it affects people differently, which makes it difficult to measure or define. For instance, two people may suffer the same injury or have the same painful experience but they may experience completely different levels of pain.
Types of pain
Pain is classified either as chronic or acute. Acute pain is usually severe and short-lived – and often a sign that your body has been injured – usually lasting for less than 12 weeks. Chronic pain, on the other hand, can be anything from mild to severe and lasts longer than the acute type, and is often associated with a disease or other long-term condition. There are several types of pain, including the following:
The British Pain Society describes neuropathic pain as pain initiated or caused by a primary lesion or dysfunction in the peripheral or central nervous systems (the nerves, spinal cord and brain). This includes pain following shingles, pain following an amputation or spinal cord trauma, pain associated with sciatica or carpal tunnel syndrome as well as pain experienced by people who have diabetes or multiple sclerosis.
This is the most common type of pain and is caused by an injury such as a cut, bruise, bone fracture, burn or crushing, causing an aching, sharp or throbbing sensation. Any type of pain that damages body tissues is nociceptive pain, including post-surgical pain and pain caused by cancer.
If you have pain without any physical disorder that could be causing it combined with psychological factors such as anxiety or stress, it’s known as psychogenic pain. This type of pain isn’t as common as neuropathic or nociceptive pain, but despite being caused or made worse by psychological factors, it is every bit as real. However, as you may imagine, it can be much more complicated to treat.
Conditions that cause pain
Many physical conditions cause pain, whether acute or chronic. Here are some of the main ones:
The NHS claims that back pain affects eight out of 10 people at some point in their lives. Many cases are caused by a slipped disc, which causes sudden and severe lower back pain that is often made worse when you move, cough or sneeze or an ache or pain running down the leg, called sciatica. In most cases the pain eases gradually over several weeks.
There are many different types of arthritis, the two main ones being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Both of these types can cause significant pain in joints such as the hips, knees, back, fingers and wrists.
Headache and migraine
Ten million or more people in the UK get headaches, suggests the NHS, with tension headaches the most common type. A migraine headache tends to be much more painful than an everyday one, causing extreme sensitivity to light and sound as well as intense pain. The most painful type of headache, however, is believed to be a cluster headache. This causes a sharp, stabbing pain around one eye or on one side of your head. Thankfully cluster headaches are less common than tension headaches, with around one in 500-1,000 people affected. Discover more about types of headache and their treatments.
If you break a bone – such as an ankle, wrist, leg, arm or nose – it can be extremely painful. Most bones can take around six to 12 weeks to heal – though the older you are, the longer your bones can take to mend.
Often described as one of the most painful conditions, shingles is triggered by the virus that causes chickenpox (if you’ve ever had chickenpox, you could go on to develop shingles at some point, most commonly when you’re aged 70 or older). An infection of a nerve and the skin around it, shingles usually affects one side of the body and comes with a painful rash that develops into blisters. Learn more about chickenpox and shingles symptoms in our helpful guide.
Passing a kidney stone – a lump that develops in one or both kidneys – can cause sudden, sharp pains in your lower back or side, sometimes in your groin. The pain commonly happens in the night, and can cause a urinary tract infection if the stone blocks part of your urinary system. Kidney stones tend to affect more men than women.
Damage to the peripheral nervous system – that is, the nerves outside your central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) – is called peripheral neuropathy. This can cause a range of painful sensations, including burning, stabbing and shooting pains, as well as numbness and tingling in the feet or hands. If you have diabetes, your risk of having peripheral neuropathy may be high, thanks to the damage having high blood sugar levels can cause to your nerves.
Conventional pain relief
If you’re experiencing pain, the first thing you may reach for is a packet of painkillers. Painkillers work in two ways: they either suppress the release of chemicals at the site of the pain or they block pain receptors within the brain. However, while they can improve your quality of life, all painkillers have potential side effects you should be aware of.
Used for mild to moderate pain including headaches, toothache, period pain and most non-nerve pain, paracetamol works by acting on the production of substances called prostaglandins that sensitise nerve endings after an injury. Paracetamol is also an antipyretic, which means it can help to bring down a high temperature. However, it has little effect on inflammation. Available as tablets (including effervescent/dissolvable tablets).
This is classed as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and is often recommended when mild to moderate pain is combined with inflammation, such as in joint, muscle and tendon injuries. Ibuprofen blocks a chemical called COX, which is involved in the production of prostaglandins. However, like other NSAIDS such as naproxen and diclofenac, ibuprofen can cause side effects if taken for long periods, including an increased risk of stomach upset (including bleeding). For that reason, it should be taken with or after food. Available in tablets and as a gel.
Aspirin isn’t used for pain very often nowadays as it has similar side effects as other NSAIDs but is less effective as a painkiller. It works by blocking a chemical called COX-2, which is involved in the production of prostaglandins. Aspirin should never be given to children under the age of 16. Available in tablets and powders.
This belongs to the opioid analgesics group of drugs but is more effective when combined in a single tablet with paracetamol, called co-codamol. Codeine works by mimicking the action of chemicals called endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers. In combination with paracetamol, it’s often used for mild to moderate pain (low-dose co-codamol is available over the counter). However, there’s a risk of developing a dependency on codeine or co-codamol, which means you should only take it for very short periods of time. Available in tablets (including effervescent/dissolvable tablets).
If you have more severe pain, your GP may prescribe higher-strength painkillers. And if your pain is caused by nerve sensitivity or nerve damage, you may need prescription medicines that are also used for depression (amitriptyline) or epilepsy (gabapentin) to help ease your nerve pain. Migraine pain, meanwhile, is often treated with prescription medicines called triptans. These are not strictly speaking painkillers, but work by contracting the blood vessels around the brain.
Painkillers for children
According to the NHS, both paracetamol and ibuprofen are safe and effective as a pain relief treatment for childrens. However it’s essential to use the right strength and dosage for your child’s age (paracetamol can be given to children aged two months or older, while ibuprofen can be given to children aged three months and older who weigh more than 5kg).
Self help for pain
Whatever type of pain you have, there are several thing you can do yourself that may help bring you some relief.
Physical activity such as walking, swimming, gardening and dancing may be the last thing you want to do when you’re in pain, but it can help to ease pain by stopping pain signals reaching your brain. It can also help by loosening up any stiffness you may have in your muscles or joints. Start slowly and build up the amount and intensity of exercise you do gradually. Always speak to your GP before starting to exercise, especially if you have a medical condition.
Shed some weight
Carrying too much body weight can put a strain on your lower back and your knees, so if you suffer from either of these types of pain, it’s a good idea to keep your weight in check.
Poor posture can also put a strain on your back and joints. So try not to slouch, and stand upright with your back straight and your weight balanced evenly on both feet. Watch your posture when you’re sitting too: place your feet flat on the floor, keep your knees and hips levels and put a small cushion or other support in the small of your back to keep you sitting upright.
Take your mind off it
If you’re in pain, it may be all you can think about. But distracting yourself could help. Try to absorb yourself in a fascinating hobby, or learn a new skill. Also try phoning a friend or a family member for a chat and making a point of not talking about your pain, as the more you talk about it, the more you may fixate on it.
Practising relaxation techniques – such as breathing exercises or meditation – may also help. If you have chronic pain, your GP may be able to recommend a relaxation class or course at your local hospital’s pain clinic.
Read all about it
There are lots of books and leaflets available on self-help techniques that may help with pain, including books on cognitive behavioural therapy techniques, so arm yourself as much information as possible can. For starters, take a look at some of the publications featured on the British Pain Society’s website.
Drug-free pain remedies
Conventional painkillers are effective, but many people worry about the potential side effects, especially those who need to use painkillers often. The good news, however, is that there are several natural remedies that help with various different types of pain, including the following:
The omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, sardines, herring and mackerel. These oils are widely believed to help reduce inflammation by affecting the body’s natural production of substances called prostaglandins. In one study, for instance, people taking prescription anti-inflammatory painkillers for acute and chronic non-specific neck and back pain were also given fish oils. After 75 days, 59 per cent stopped taking their painkillers while 88 per cent said they wanted to carry on taking the supplements (i).
This mineral is found naturally in the body and is needed for more than 300 different biochemical reactions, including muscle and nerve function. Studies suggest regular use of magnesium supplements may help prevent migraines (ii) as well as period pain (iii). However, there’s evidence that many people in the UK don’t get enough magnesium in their diet (seven out of 10 women and four out of 10 men aged between 19 and 50 are getting less magnesium than they need).
Most people know turmeric as the spice that colour and flavour to curry dishes. However, it’s also a popular remedy used in the traditional Indian system of herbal medicine called Ayurveda. Turmeric contains an antioxidant substance called curcumin, which is widely thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, making it suitable for a variety of pain conditions. There’s evidence it may be as effective for treating osteoarthritis of the knee as the conventional painkiller ibuprofen – but without ibuprofen’s side effects (iv).
Ginger may also be effective as an anti-inflammatory, thanks to its active ingredients called gingerols. One large-scale study found that ginger, when combined with another Asian spice called galanga (or galangal), may significantly improve arthritis symptoms (v). Meanwhile, studies suggest ginger powder may be as effective at reducing the severity of migraines as the conventional treatment sumatriptan (vi).
Originating from South Africa, devil’s claw is a plant that has been traditionally used to treat pain and fever as well as to stimulate digestion. Studies suggest it works, with one claiming devil’s claw may help reduce muscular pain and discomfort (vii).
Found in pineapple juice and in the stem of pineapple plants, bromelain is a collection of enzymes that digest proteins, and has several uses, including as an anti-inflammatory (viii).
Cherries have been used for several pain-related conditions, and there is some evidence that cherry juice may help to reduce muscular pain caused by excessive exercise (ix). Cherries have been found to lower levels of uric acid in the blood (x), which has led some experts to claim it may be useful in the treatment of gout. Indeed, one large-scale study found people taking cherries or cherry extract had a 35 per cent lower risk of gout attacks compared to when they weren’t taking any cherry supplements (xi).
Also known as palmitoylethanolamide, PEA is a type of fatty acid made naturally by the body and found in all cells, tissues and fluids including the brain (it’s also found in foods such as soya beans, peanuts, eggs, flaxseed and milk). Described as an endocannbinoid-like chemical that belongs to a family of fatty acid compounds called amides (xii), PEA is an alternative to CBD, since both substances are thought to have similar properties including the ability to reduce pain and inflammation. However researchers suggest PEA is safer than CBD, since it has been studied more extensively and has a more robust safety profile (xiii) with no known side effects (xii).
Your body naturally increases its production of PEA when your cells are damaged or threatened. But in certain situations – such as when your body is experiencing chronic inflammation – the level of PEA in your cells drops (xii). When this happens, PEA supplements may be helpful. In fact a review of 16 clinical trials and meta-analysis of PEA suggests it does have analgesic actions – in other words it helps to relieve pain (xiv).
Small battery-operated devices called TENS machines (TENS is short for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) may be useful if you have a painful condition such as arthritis, back pain, period pain, knee and neck pain. They’re also often used during childbirth as a method of pain relief and work by blocking pain signals going to the spinal cord and the brain as well as stimulating the production of endorphins.
If you have muscle pain or stiffness – including backache or sciatica – you may find that heat pads, patches or wraps are effective. Heat products that you can warm up in the microwave are widely available, or you could simply use a hot water bottle to apply heat to the affected area.
Managing pain, whether it’s short or long-term can be difficult, but these simple remedies should have you feeling better in no time. For more helpful articles just like this, feel free to visit our health library.
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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.