We weren’t born to eat drugs like candy. Yet osteoarthritis, so common and so very painful, has caused way too many of us to take our chances with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and celecoxib (Celebrex), which can put users at risk for heart attack, stroke and gastrointestinal bleeding!
You have an alternative, though. A dietary supplement derived from a common Asian spice has now been shown to work just as well as ibuprofen, one of the most popular NSAIDs, for pain relief in certain arthritis patients.
The spice is turmeric. It’s related to ginger, and you probably think of it as the ingredient that colors your rice yellow at Indian restaurants—but did you know that it has been used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries? We’ve known that one of the major active ingredients in turmeric that gives it its pain-relieving anti-inflammatory effects is curcumin—something you can easily buy as a dietary supplement—and now a study shows how powerful that pain relief can be.
The research, from Thailand, involved 331 men and women with moderate-to-severe osteoarthritic knee pain. They were given either 1,200 milligrams per day of ibuprofen (equal to six typical 200-mg tablets) or 1,500 milligrams per day of curcumin extract.
To find out which group did better, researchers asked participants to fill out questionnaires that assessed their pain, stiffness and ability to function at the start of the study, then at two and four weeks after beginning treatment. Participants also did a walking test to see how far they could go in six minutes. At the end of the study, participants were asked whether they felt that their knee pain had improved and whether they were satisfied with the treatment they had received.
The result was clear-cut: At the study’s end, pain, stiffness and function were equally improved in participants who had been taking ibuprofen and those taking curcumin. Both groups could also walk the same distance in six minutes—an average 345 meters if they were on curcumin and an average 348 meters if they were on ibuprofen.
Even the types of side effects that occurred were similar. The most commonly reported for both groups were indigestion, stomach pain, nausea and diarrhea. While having diarrhea was more common for patients taking curcumin than for those taking ibuprofen, abdominal pain and bloating was significantly less common in the curcumin group compared with the ibuprofen group. And two participants taking ibuprofen had melena…black tarry stools that can signal intestinal bleeding.
How satisfied were people with the treatment they received? Even that was the same. Sixty-four percent of the ibuprofen group said that they felt an improvement, and so did 64% of the curcumin group. Ninety-six percent of the ibuprofen group was satisfied with their treatment and so was 97% of the curcumin group.
IT’S NATURAL, BUT IS IT SAFE?
Curcumin as a supplement is safe for most people, but stomach upset, nausea and diarrhea can occur, so if you have GERD, you may want to steer clear of it. There are other generally recognized cautions about curcumin. It can worsen gall bladder or kidney disease…it should not be used if you are pregnant…and because curcumin might slow blood clotting, it should be taken only under a doctor’s supervision by people who have blood-clotting issues or who are on anticlotting medication. (And generally it is stopped at least two weeks before a scheduled surgery to prevent excessive bleeding.) As for whether curcumin can hurt your heart like NSAIDs can…it has been associated with abnormal heart rhythm in large doses (over 3,000 milligrams a day).
SO IS IT WORTH TRYING?
Curcumin as a supplement is powerful. That’s why it helped arthritis pain so well in the new study. That power needs to be respected—meaning, if you want to try it, you should do so only in consultation with a doctor trained in natural medications to minimize side effects. You should also be aware that the dose of ibuprofen used in the study was lower than the dose normally used in the United States for arthritis pain (up to 3,200 milligrams per day). The reasoning for using a lower dose, according to the study’s authors, was that most Thai people weigh less than Americans, and so the ibuprofen dose given was appropriate for the average Thai person. But Western researchers might want to pick up the ball and do their own study of curcumin for arthritis pain compared with the amount of ibuprofen that Americans generally use to find out whether the study findings really hold true. In the meantime, there is now a very good reason to ask your doctor whether curcumin might be something that you can try for relief of osteoarthritic knee pain…or even for arthritis pain in other joints. If it can help you safely reduce your reliance on NSAIDs, all the better.