Be it from a simple headache or chronic condition, many people’s first reaction to pain is to seek relief from pain medication. While conventional drugs are effective for many, there are also side effects. In one survey, 68% of participants reported experiencing two or more negative side effects while taking pain medication, confusion and nausea being the most common (1). For those wary of these side effects, there are several alternative natural pain relievers with minimal side effects. While none of these can be said to outright cure any ailments, there is scientific and anecdotal evidence suggesting that these can match the effects of traditional pain medication.

On Top of Topicals
While many people think pills when thinking about analgesics, more commonly called painkillers, there are several topical options as well. When applied to the skin, these lotions and creams can provide pain relief to afflicted areas while circumventing some of the potential side problems with oral analgesics. This is largely due to the presence of several natural ingredients. Many popular name brands in topical relief use wintergreen oil due to the fact that its main chemical constituent is a natural anti-inflammatory compound called methyl salicylate. In the body, methyl salicylate is converted to salicylic acid, otherwise known as aspirin (2). Essentially, this replicates the effects of aspirin without any concern of side effects.

Two other common topical treatments are menthol and capsaicin. When applied topically, studies show that menthol oil can increase one’s pain threshold (3). Another study noted that only natural menthol had this effect, with synthetic menthol showing no analgesic properties when tested (4). Capsaicin, the ingredient that gives chili peppers their heat, also may relieve pain, with studies showing positive effects in sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, psoriasis and shingles (5).

While the exact mechanisms behind these effects haven’t been entirely determined, there are several theories as to why some of these topical ingredients are believed to support pain relief. One is a link between temperature and pain in the central nervous system, sometimes causing a sort of internal confusion that these treatments alleviate. Another suggests that the ingredients act as a sort of “counter-irritant,” stopping pain signals before they reach the brain. Ultimately, only time and further research will determine which, if any, of these theories are true (3).

One thing that first-time topical treatment users need to know is to wash their hands after applying to avoid contamination. In addition, be careful not to use them on broken or scraped skin to avoid irritation. Topical treatments should also not be combined with external heat sources, such as heating pads.

Herbal Remedies
Another natural option in pain relief has been around for centuries: herbal treatments. One popular option is curcumin. Modern clinical trials have reinforced its anti-inflammatory properties, with one study saying the herb could be beneficial for people suffering from cystic fibrosis (6).

Ginger is another common herbal pain remedy, often helpful for arthritis, headaches, menstrual cramps and muscle soreness (7). Studies have also been conducted to see if it can alleviate pain from osteoarthritis, but results were inconclusive, with one study showing people who had taken an extract to require less pain medication, while another showing no difference at all (8). One factor in ginger’s popularity is its versatility, with extracts, tinctures, capsules and oils all being viable delivery systems.

Studies have shown that willow bark reduces headaches and lower back pain, with lower rates of side effects than traditional pain relief products. Some have also recommended willow bark to reduce pain from menstrual cramps, tendonitis and bursitis, but more research is needed to verify those claims (9).

Building Defenses
While this may surprise you, even a simple multivitamin may aid with pain relief, albeit in a roundabout way. Several studies have suggested that chronic pain and vitamin D deficiency could have an association, though the exact nature of this is uncertain. One study in rats showed that vitamin D-deficient rats required a significantly higher amount of painkillers to achieve the same state of relief as rats with proper levels (10). Deficiencies in magnesium and vitamin B2 may exacerbate chronic pain, but data there are more mixed (3). WF

1. G.R. Palos, et al., “Perceptions of Analgesic Use and Side Effects: What the Public Values in Pain Management,” J. Pain Sympt. Man., 28 (5), 460–473 (2004).
2. Institute for Integrative Healthcare, “2 Topical Pain Relievers,”, accessed Aug. 13, 2014.
3. P. Page and D.Mackison, “New Alternatives to Pain Medication: How Natural Pain Relievers Can Help,”, accessed Aug. 13, 2014.
4. C. Gaudioso et al., “Menthol Pain Relief through Cumulative Inactivation of Voltage-Gated Sodium Channels,” Pain, 153 (2), 473–484 (2012).
5., “Supplements For Pain Relief,”, accessed Aug. 13, 2014.
6. C.S. Yang and Z.Y. Wang, “Tea and Cancer,” J. Nat. Cancer Inst. 85 (13), 1038–1049 (1993).
7. M.S. Ni, “4 Herbs for Natural Pain Relief.”, accessed Aug. 13, 2014.
8. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Ginger,”, accessed Aug. 13, 2014.
9. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Willow Bark,”, accessed Aug. 13, 2014.
10. C. Bazzani, et al., “Pain Threshold and Morphine Activity on Vitamin D-Deficient Rats,” Life Sci. 34 (5), 461–466 (1984).

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, October 2014