Taking Supplements For Chronic Pain
The National Pain Report published the results of their Women in Pain Survey in September, 2014. Over 2500 women participated in the survey, which asked a series of questions related to their chronic pain.
One question in the survey asks, “In the last 12 months, have you tried any of these alternative treatments for pain?” As you can see from the graph, about 70% of the women surveyed had tried taking vitamins or supplements.
The next question asked, “Which, if any, of these alternative treatments have helped relieve your pain?”
Just 17.8% of respondents found that vitamins or supplements helped relieve their pain, behind massage (30.6%) and exercise (22.4%).
Looking at this data it appears that most of these women have tried to take supplements to help with their chronic pain, but very few find pain relief from doing so.
Now, this is a fairly simple online survey (and by no means a scientific study), but I think it’s a fair reflection of what I used to often hear from my patients.
Fortunately, since those early days of experimentation, I’ve come a long way in helping patients with the right supplements that make a real difference in their pain and overall health.
Because there are so many products out there, and so much information (and misinformation), it’s important to narrow down on some of the reasons why most supplements are simply not effective. This applies not just for chronic pain sufferers, but also for everyone looking to improve their health through supplementation.
The Market for Supplements
There is no denying that the “natural” and “organic” trends are taking the food market by storm. A recent Statistics Canada survey showed that 8 out of 10 Canadians consume natural health products.Every major pharmacy and retailer has been jumping on board the vitamin and supplements train. This is a global trend, and signals that consumers are becoming increasingly educated about what they are consuming and the important role that food and supplementation plays in their health.
However, there are a lot of important questions that need to be addressed for those looking to get the most benefit from supplements. Questions such as –
- Are these products actually helping me?
- Can they improve my overall health, or reduce pain?
- Is there any solid evidence that natural substances can improve health?
There appears to be a multitude of stories on “Dr Google” that claiming vitamins and supplements can be of enormous benefit. Of course, a healthy amount of skepticism is warranted when evaluating such claims.
Can we really believe ALL of those claims?
The short answer is NO.
In order to gain insights into what can work we need to understand what won’t work and why.
The following are the key reasons why most supplements are not going to improve your health or reduce chronic pain.
5 Reasons Why Supplements Aren’t Helping Chronic Pain Sufferers
1) The pharmaceutical Approach
The goal of pharmaceuticals has always been to target one enzyme or receptor to change a disease process. Unfortunately this approach usually leads to failure since disease and dysfunction almost always has multiple mechanisms.
This same defective thinking has also been applied to natural health products. Vitamins never occur in isolation in nature or in the foods we eat.
Take Vitamin E as an example. It actually is a family of 8 different vitamins, but most of research has been done on only one type without acknowledging that all the forms work together in the human body.
Most supplements fall into this trap of using single vitamins without the required synergy they would normally have if consumed naturally.
2) Marketing and Misinformation
The natural health product and functional food (i.e. yogurt, flaxseed etc) market is a multi-billion dollar a year industry. With such massive opportunity comes tremendous financial pressure to sell products. Companies engage in large marketing campaigns that don’t necessarily view your health as their primary focus.
Lets look at the example of marketing for calcium and milk products. For the last 50 years we have been repeatedly bombarded with the message that calcium is good for your bones and is an essential supplement to offset the affects of aging. The research-based reality is that excessive calcium and dairy intake actually weaken your bones and harden your arteries causing heart disease. Countries with the highest rates of dairy consumption also have the highest osteoporosis rates. Something doesn’t add up!
In future posts we’ll dive deeper into details related to this topic. For now it’s important to understand that our culture is very influenced by fads, popular opinion and powerful marketing campaigns. In this environment, there’s a tendency for the best evidence based science to take a back seat. Vitamins and supplements are not immune to this trap so we may end up taking supplements that we don’t really need or even worse… that can actually harm us.
3) The Multivitamin Delusion
The Western medical system is obsessed with the approach that there is “one magic pill for every ill.” This approach is very common in the drug industry but the same thinking has also been applied to supplements, especially most commercially available multivitamins. Every pharmacy and grocery chain has their own generic gummy multivitamin but the question is whether these products have any positive health benefits. A recent study looked at a commonly used “one-a-day” multivitamin and found that it didn’t have any benefits. The Iowa women’s health study actually found that multivitamins might slightly increase the chance of death.
These results made national headlines but do they prove that all vitamins are useless?
The participants in these studies were all healthy and the multivitamin they took had very low doses of each ingredient and were in forms that are very poorly absorbed by the body. You can’t expect to get any benefits if you take a product that is set up to fail in the first place. This is the problem with all one-a-day multivitamins’s on the market; they simply don’t have enough of each nutrient to give any real benefit.
4) Low Dosage
As mentioned in the previous section, the dosages in most supplements don’t come anywhere close to the amounts that have been shown to have a positive effect on your health.
The perfect example is vitamin D. The recommended daily allowance vitamin D is 600IU per day, however numerous studies and scientific authorities have clearly shown that if a person is deficient (which up to 50% of the north American population is) that dose will not raise vitamin D levels into a beneficial range.
Just because there is a long list of ingredients on a supplement label doesn’t mean they are at levels that will have a benefit. Beware of the low/incorrect dosage trap.
5) Product Purity
One of the biggest problems in the natural health product industry is the lack of quality control. Supplements sold in North America must go through an approval process that checks for safety. However, in both the United States and Canada, quality control is left totally up to the companies that make the products.
A number of reports and investigations have found that the majority of the supplements tested didn’t contain the amount of the ingredients on the label and actually were contaminated with potentially toxic substances.
The truth is that most raw materials for supplements come from China and India where quality control is suspect at best and contamination is rampant. While there are some companies that have excellent purity and quality control standards the trade off is that they are more expensive then most cut rate products at the big box stores.
The rule of thumb in the supplement world is that you usually get what you pay for.
Are Supplements Worth Taking?
Supplements can be extremely useful for improving our health and limiting pain. But like most things, effective knowledge is needed in order to achieve the right outcomes.
By incorporating highly nutritious foods in your diet, you can get most of the vitamins and minerals you need for optimal health. Thankfully, many people are now talking about how the way you eat slowly changes the function of your cells and starts to restore normal and healthy function.
The truth is that you can supplement all you want, but if you’re regularly eating fast food and drinking soda, even the best supplements are going to be of limited benefit. Supplements are meant to be just that… supplements. They cannot offset the effects of a harmful diet.
Even eating a very natural and non-processed diet can still leave you deficient in certain vitamins and minerals.
There is a therapeutic place for high quality supplements that contain absorbable forms with evidence-based dosages. These supplements have to respect the way your body normally functions (AKA functional medicine) to safely and effectively impact your health.
Eating a healthy diet and taking the right supplements won’t likely be a silver bullet in combating chronic pain, but it does set you up to have the best chance to reduce your symptoms and have the highest quality of life possible.
How To Avoid These Supplementation Pitfalls
In order to have the best chances of success with supplementation we need to avoid the common pitfalls we listed, which is easier said then done. The market for supplements is massive, and with so many products out there how is anyone supposed to know which supplements to take?
When I first started prescribing supplements to my chronic pain patients (the first one I recommend is Magnesium), they would tell me that they went to the store but had no idea which one to get.
I thought to myself “how hard can it be?”
Then I went to the store and walked down the supplement aisle. With so many different options how is anyone supposed to have a clue as to which supplements to take?
Since those early days, I’ve found the highest quality products on the market, and prescribe to my patients those which will have the greatest impact in getting their muscles functioning properly again.
Supplementation is not an exact science, but there are a few keys to success that must be followed –
- Try to get the vitamins/minerals that you need naturally. Supplement for the rest.
- Only take the highest quality products. They are more expensive, but they work.
- Get the dosage right. Most recommended dosages are too low, especially for those who are deficient.
These 3 simple steps will help you use supplements much more effectively. At this point you’re probably thinking, “Richard, all of this is great, but which supplements do I take?”
Supplementing For Chronic Myofascial Pain
We’ve created 3 supplements that are in the process of being approved by Health Canada, and which will be available later this year (2015).
They’ve been specifically designed to treat myofascial pain, and they meet the criteria outlined above for supplementation. These vitamins and minerals are not easy to get through diet alone, they are of the highest quality, and the recommended dose is sufficient enough to have a real impact. We’ve designed them specifically to have the greatest benefit for those suffering from chronic pain.
Subscribe below and I’ll keep you updated with new posts each week. Over the next little while I’ll start discussing each of the minerals/vitamins that we lack in our diet and which are most effective in restoring balance in muscle.