Omega-3s—a New Pain-Management Alternative

Healthnotes Newswire (May 3, 2007)—Pain relief is one of the most common reasons that people seek medical care, and now people looking for alternatives to drugs have another place to turn. A new report finds that omega-3 fatty acids from fish are effective for relieving joint pain associated with a variety of conditions.

Nutritional, herbal, and homeopathic supplements have become increasingly popular among people looking for pain relief, owing in part to concerns about the side effects of anti-inflammatory and analgesic medicines. While some of these natural therapies have promising evidence supporting their effectiveness, many remain unstudied.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish oil (EPA [eicosapentaenoic acid] and DHA [docosahexaenoic acid]), and some plant oils such as flaxseed oil (ALA [alpha-linolenic acid]). When these fatty acids are part of the diet or are used as supplements, the body uses them to make anti-inflammatory compounds.

A wealth of research has demonstrated the benefits of taking fish oil and EPA/DHA supplements. As a result, the US Food and Drug Administration determined that labels on foods containing the omega-3 fatty acids from fish can include a health claim stating that they might protect against heart disease.

Other studies have shown that supplementing with fish oil or EPA/DHA can relieve joint pain in people with inflammatory diseases. A new report, published in the journal Pain, examined the results of 17 such studies, which included people suffering from joint pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, or painful menstruation.

The analysis found that fish oil or EPA/DHA supplements, providing 2.7 grams or more of omega-3 fatty acids per day, consistently reduced participants’ perception of pain, number of painful or tender joints, morning stiffness, and use of anti-inflammatory medicines.

The greatest benefits were observed after three months of therapy; however, since most of the studies were three months long or less, it is not clear whether longer use would lead to further pain reduction.

The authors of the report suggest that EPA/DHA supplements might be useful in treating other types of chronic inflammatory pain, such as the pain of osteoarthritis and chronic back pain, but no controlled clinical trials have been done yet. “Omega-3 [fatty acids] are an attractive adjunctive treatment for joint pain,” they concluded.

(Pain 2007 [in press])

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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