7 Foods that Relieve Pain—and 5 That Make it Worse

Monday May 26 | BY |
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Foods that Ease Pain

Tart cherries could help relieve your muscle pain after exercise—
try them in your smoothie or stir them into yogurt.

The American Psychological Association states: “Chronic pain due to disease, disorder or accident affects nearly a third of the U.S. population every year. With arthritis, fibromyalgia, and low back or muscle pain among the top offenders, chronic pain takes a toll in the pain itself as well as associated disability and emotional distress, lost productivity and high medical costs.”

Pain medications may help, for a while, but many come with serious side effects, and others become less effective over time. According to a 2012 study, neural cells build up resistance to opioid pain drugs within hours, giving new clues into why taking pain meds can be a vicious cycle—as you build up resistance, you have to take more and more, which exacerbates side effects, causing more pain.

If you’re struggling with chronic pain—or just trying to recover from an injury—your diet can help, or hurt. A number of foods can affect the pain you feel, so to be as comfortable as possible, know what to add to your meals, and what to avoid.

7 Foods that Help Ease Pain
  1. Ginger: Recommended for easing nausea in cancer patients taking chemotherapy, ginger has also been found to help relieve muscle pain. One 2013 study found that ginger extract actually worked better than ibuprofen and cortisol for the treatment of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Ginger is a powerful anti-inflammatory and may help you, too. Try ginger capsules, or better yet, add chopped, fresh ginger to soups, stews, stir-fries, juices, or enjoy a cup of ginger tea.
  2. Tart cherries: The Oregon Health & Science University found that tart cherries help to relieve chronic inflammation related to arthritis. And there’s a lot more. Scientists at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore found that the fruit reduced painful inflammation as well as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), and another study reported tart cherry juice reduced muscle pain after exercise. Look for these in the farmer’s market, add them to juices, or stir frozen ones into yogurt. Make sure you get the tart kind—so far, we haven’t found that sweet cherries offer the same benefits.
  3. Salmon: Salmon is full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to be powerful anti-inflammatories. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that clinical studies have found that fish oil helps reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, including joint pain and morning stiffness. One study even reported that patients taking fish oil may be able to lower their use of NSAID pain relievers (like ibuprofen and aspirin). Other studies have indicated it may also help relieve pain associated with osteoarthritis, as well as easing neck and back pain. Get more fatty fish, like salmon, anchovies, herring and mackerel, into your daily diet. Flaxseed, walnuts, and soybean oil are also good sources.
  4. Chamomile tea: You probably associate this one with helping you to fall asleep, but chamomile also has pain-relieving properties. According to a 2010 study, this herb is commonly used for inflammation and muscle spasms as well as rheumatic pain. A 2011 study found that applied topically, a chamomile solution helped heal wounds in the skin, and stop itching even better than hydrocortisone did.
  5. Thyme and rosemary oil: Suffering from headaches? Rub one or both of these oils on your temples. A 2010 study found that both contain a compound called “carvacrol” that acts like a Cox-II inhibitor—similar to the way ibuprofen works.
  6. Soy milk: However you get your soy, as long as you get it, you may suffer from less pain. In 2002, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore concluded that a diet rich in soy reduced pain and swelling in rats—and could one day be used by humans to manage chronic pain. In 2004, a study on humans showed that a diet of soy protein helped ease symptoms of osteoarthritis.
  7. Grapes: Or red wine, or grape juice. They all contain resveratrol, which has shown potential in some studies to relieve pain. In 2012, researchers found that it helped preserve the pain-relieving effects of morphine, which tend to wear off after awhile as the patient builds resistance. Before receiving resveratrol, the animal participants had a 20 percent of normal response to morphine, but after receiving resveratrol, that response jumped to 60 percent. Earlier, in 2011, researchers found that resveratrol had analgesic effects, interrupting the activity of enzymes responsible for pain signals.
5 Foods that May Exacerbate Pain

According to Daniel Arkfeld, M.D., a rheumatologist at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, some foods can trigger the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that actually make pain worse. Here are a few that may do that to you—though studies are not conclusive yet, so the key is to choose one, go without it awhile, and see how you feel.

  1. Dairy: Some arthritis patients believe that dairy products make their pain worse. Some fibromyalgia patients feel the same. A 1981 case study examined a patient who experienced more pain when she ate dairy products like milk and cheese, and the University of Maryland Medical Center notes that particularly if you have food allergies, eliminating dairy may help ease pain.
  2. Nightshade plants: These include tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and potatoes. A 1993 study found that in sensitive people, foods in the nightshade family could exacerbate arthritis pain, and that these people could find significant relief in avoiding them. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine notes that a 1989 survey of over 1,000 arthritis patients showed that these foods were some of the most commonly believed to worsen the condition.
  3. Processed sugars: If you have a lot of pain, ease up on sugary foods. Those that break down quickly in your body spike blood sugar levels, which can increase inflammation. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center notes that fructose content in beverages triggers low-grade chronic inflammation, while a diet rich in low-glycemic foods reduced inflammation.
  4. Diet soda: Several small studies have indicated that when migraine sufferers consume more products containing the artificial sweetener aspartame, they experience more migraines. Worth a try—go for lemon water, tea, coffee, or sparkling water instead.
  5. MSG: This is a food additive often found in soups, Chinese dishes, canned veggies, processed meats, and more. Studies have indicated that it can increase the number of headaches you experience. In fact, study participants experienced almost immediate pain and pressure after consuming something with MSG in it.

Have you tried foods for pain relief? Please share any good ones you’ve found.

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Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com


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  1. Deborawh says:

    I slipped on black ice and fell on my back all the way down a set of wooden steps-about 10-12 back in Jan. 09. I was in shock, then in a lot of pain, my whole back. This was the impetus for me to try eating a completely raw vegan diet, in the hopes that I might receive some of the great results I had read about from the Boutenkos and others who had gone 100% raw. I was amazed.

    When I ate only raw foods, I had no pain any more. As soon as I ingested cooked food, the bad pain returned. This was enough to make me stay on a raw diet for close to 300 days of that year. It worked as an amazing pain killer, plus my back healed without getting any PT, not to mention a lot of other problems that healed along with it-acid reflux, 25 lbs weight loss, chronic cough, 98% healing of a torn meniscus.
    Sometimes I forget that I could still use that for pain now.

    10 days ago I tripped and fell with all of my weight on one knee. I have been using lidocaine patches on my leg and knee. I am not all raw anymore and eat about 90% vegan food, about 70% raw. Funny how I totally forgot about my raw food success 5 years ago until I read this article. Looks like I need to take my own advice!

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