Estimates show that between 5 percent and 10 percent of the U.S. population uses non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain relief. While NSAIDs are effective in treating both acute and chronic pain, they also may cause a myriad of complications, ranging from headaches and stomach ulcers to dizziness, constipation, diarrhea, heart attack and death. A new study indicates that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil may be just as effective as NSAIDs in treating pain, without causing side effects.
In this study, scientists evaluated 250 patients who were suffering from nonsurgical neck pain or back pain, and who were taking NSAIDs for pain relief. The patients were asked to take 2,400 milligrams of omega-3 supplements per day for two weeks, and then to reduce the dosage to 1,200 milligrams daily. Approximately one month after starting supplementation, the patients were mailed a questionnaire asking them to document their level of pain, use of NSAIDs, and any side effects caused by the supplements.
One hundred twenty-five patients returned the questionnaire, an average of 75 days after taking the supplements. Seventy-eight percent were taking 1,200 milligrams of omega-3s; the remainder had continued taking 2,400 milligrams. 59 percent of the patients reported they had discontinued using NSAIDs for pain control; 60 percent said their overall pain levels had improved; and 80 percent stated that they were satisfied with the improvement in pain. No adverse side effects were reported.
As the results of this study show, omega-3 fatty acids appear just as effective as NSAIDs, if not more so, in relieving certain kinds of neck and back pain, without significant side effects.
Krill Oil, An Alternative
In separate Quality of Life studies, one-third to 1/2 the dose of Omega-3 DHA and EPA from Krill Oil have demonstrated a benefit approximately 2 times that of the DHA and EPA from standard fish oils. Though not used in this study, the EPA and DHA in Krill oil are phospholipid bound, rather than all other marine oils, where the omega-3's are triglyceride bound. This is proposed as the explanation for the superior pain relief of Krill Oil to standard Omega-3 containing fish oil.
BACKGROUND: The use of NSAID medications is a well-established effective therapy for both acute and chronic nonspecific neck and back pain. Extreme complications, including gastric ulcers, bleeding, myocardial infarction, and even deaths, are associated with their use. An alternative treatment with fewer side effects that also reduces the inflammatory response and thereby reduces pain is believed to be omega-3 EFAs found in fish oil. We report our experience in a neurosurgical practice using fish oil supplements for pain relief.
METHODS: From March to June 2004, 250 patients who had been seen by a neurosurgeon and were found to have nonsurgical neck or back pain were asked to take a total of 1200 mg per day of omega-3 EFAs (eicosapentaenoic acid and decosahexaenoic acid) found in fish oil supplements. A questionnaire was sent approximately 1 month after starting the supplement.
RESULTS: Of the 250 patients, 125 returned the questionnaire at an average of 75 days on fish oil. Seventy-eight percent were taking 1200 mg and 22% were taking 2400 mg of EFAs. Fifty-nine percent discontinued to take their prescription NSAID medications for pain. Sixty percent stated that their overall pain was improved, and 60% stated that their joint pain had improved. Eighty percent stated they were satisfied with their improvement, and 88% stated they would continue to take the fish oil. There were no significant side effects reported.
CONCLUSIONS: Our results mirror other controlled studies that compared ibuprofen and omega-3 EFAs demonstrating equivalent effect in reducing arthritic pain. omega-3 EFA fish oil supplements appear to be a safer alternative to NSAIDs for treatment of nonsurgical neck or back pain in this selective group.
Maroon JC, Bost JW. Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) as an anti-inflammatory: an alternative to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for discogenic pain. Surgical Neurology, April 2006;65(4):326-331.