More and more we learn that by taking ibuprofen we subject ourselves to serious health conditions like heart attack or stroke. Yet, most of us have popped ibuprofen or administered it to a loved one to relieve pain or fever. Although no one should ever have to suffer pain, you’re certainly not limited to taking dangerous pharmaceuticals. There are alternatives to ibuprofen — and nature has the answer.
The health risks of taking ibuprofen
In 2005, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned us that taking painkillers known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen, increases the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
NSAIDs work by inhibiting prostaglandins, chemicals that may trigger inflammation in the body. They are frequently used to ease mild to moderate fever and pain such as headaches, migraines and menstrual cramps. They are also used to control pain and swelling caused by sports injuries, and to ease pain and inflammation in the joints, bones and muscles linked to rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
Recently, the FDA further strengthened its warning, suggesting that serious side effects, such as cardiovascular events and potentially life-threatening gastrointestinal bleeding, are associated with NSAIDs. In addition, side effects may occur as early as the first few weeks of using ibuprofen. Plus, the risk may rise the longer NSAIDs are taken — potentially leading to death.
Under the umbrella of NSAIDs, the FDA listed ibuprofen and the various names it is manufactured under: Motrin, Motrin IB, Motrin Migraine Pain, Advil, Advil Migraine Liqui-gels, Ibu-Tab 200, Medipren, Cap-Profen, Tab-Profen, Profen, Ibuprofen, Children’s Elixsure, Vicoprofen (combination with hydrocodone) and Combunox (combination with oxycodone). It’s important to note that while aspirin is also an NSAID, the revised warning doesn’t apply since aspirin doesn’t seem to pose a health risk.
So, if ibuprofen, a go-to for pain and inflammation, is potentially life-threatening, then we need to take a more natural and holistic approach. The following is nature’s answer to ibuprofen.
White willow bark
White willow bark dates back to 400 BC, when people chewed on the bark to ease fever and inflammation. Today, it’s still used to treat pain, headache and inflammatory conditions such as bursitis and tendinitis. The bark contains salicin, a chemical similar to aspirin. When combined with the herb’s powerful anti-inflammatory plant compounds, flavonoids, salicin is thought to relieve pain (but not fever) and inflammation. In fact, aspirin is actually the brainchild of salicin.
White willow relieves pain more slowly than aspirin, but smaller doses are required and its effects can last longer, suggests the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMM). White willow bark may be useful for treating the following conditions: headache, low back pain and osteoarthritis.
People who are allergic or sensitive to salicylates such as aspirin should not use white willow bark. In addition, children under the age of 18 should not take white willow bark because of the danger of developing Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious illness linked to aspirin intake in children. Speak to your health-care practitioner to determine the appropriate dose for you.
Cat’s claw is a woody vine native to the Amazon rainforest and other places in South and Central America. South Americans have used cat’s claw for centuries to treat health problems such as arthritis, inflammation and fevers. Traditionally, cat’s claw is used to treat osteoarthritis. In fact, one study found that it may help relieve pain from osteoarthritis of the knee, without significant side effects.
Cat’s claw may also treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA) since it has been known to reduce inflammation. According to Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, “One small study of people who were already taking sulfasalazine or hydroxychloroquine to treat RA found that those who also took cat’s claw had fewer painful, swollen joints than those who took a placebo (dummy pill). But although cat’s claw may help reduce inflammation, there is no evidence to show that it stops joint damage from getting worse. For that reason, RA should be treated with conventional medications, which can stop joint damage.”
Pregnant or nursing women should not take cat’s claw because it can cause miscarriage. In addition, people with leukemia or low blood pressure should not take cat’s claw.
Boswellia is a large tree native to India, North Africa and the Middle East. Resin tapped from the trunk is used in herbal preparations. This resin is known as frankincense and contains boswellic acids, the primary active components. Clinical trials have demonstrated that boswellic acids have anti-inflammatory properties that work like NSAIDs.
Unlike NSAIDS, long-term use of boswellia doesn’t seem to lead to irritation or ulceration of the stomach, suggests holistic health expert Andrew Weil, MD. Boswellia is most commonly used for chronic inflammatory ailments and may reduce pain and improve mobility in people with osteoarthritis. Research shows that it might decrease joint pain by 32 to 65 percent, suggests Weil.
Capsaicin is a component in hot chili peppers, also known as cayenne. When added to an emollient, capsaicin may be applied topically to the skin to temporarily reduce “substance P,” a chemical that contributes to inflammation and pain in arthritis.
Several studies suggest that a capsaicin-containing cream or lotion may provide better pain relief than a placebo, but it doesn’t improve joint swelling, grip strength or function for people with osteoarthritis. Pain generally starts to reduce within three to seven days after applying the capsaicin cream to the affected area.
Curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric (and found in limited amounts in ginger), is similar to capsaicin in that it blocks “substance P.” According to research, curcumin is associated with pain and inflammation reduction, and enhanced recovery of muscle performance. However, turmeric may increase the risk of bleeding, especially for people who take blood-thinning medications, so speak to a health-care professional before taking turmeric.
Just because you’re in pain doesn’t mean you have to put your life at risk for relief. With a holistic approach, you can minimize the chemicals you put into your body. However, if pain is ongoing, a medical practitioner should diagnose the underlying cause. Simply treating your symptom with pain relief could affect your general health.
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Katherine Marko is a freelance writer, author and blog creator. Her areas of expertise include food, health, style, beauty, business and nutrition. Marko holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, a diploma in photography, graphic design and marketing, and certification in esthetics.