Turmeric for Pain Relief: Uses, Research and Potential Benefits

Struggled with pain in the past few months? You’re not alone. More than 1 out of every 10 Americans have experienced pain every day for three months or more, according to the National Institutes of Health. Chronic pain is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and the top reason for the rise in prescription painkiller abuse. While over-the-counter painkillers and prescription pills can relieve pain temporarily, they only work for so long and often come with unwanted side effects and the risk of addiction from habitual use.

What if you could ease aches and pains naturally without popping a pill? It might be possible by adding one spice to your diet: turmeric. While this bright yellow, peppery spice is best known for bringing color and flavor to mustard, curry powder, and Indian and Asian dishes, it has an even longer history in traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine as a natural pain reliever.

A Centuries-old Tonic

The spice sold in the grocery store is ground and dried from the turmeric root, an herb that grows primarily in Southeast Asia and contains optimal amounts of antioxidants, and is from the same family as ginger. Eastern cultures have used turmeric for pain relief for more than 4,000 years, as well as a tonic for other ailments, including fatigue, breathing problems and rheumatism, reports the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

In Ayurvedic practices, an ancient system of holistic medicine in India, turmeric was used to relieve arthritis and strengthen the overall energy in the body, as well ease swelling and irritation from sprains and other injuries. South Asian countries used it to disinfect cuts and burns. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, turmeric root was often ground into a paste and applied it to a burnt piece of cloth to cleanse wounds and stimulate their recovery. Pakistanis also used turmeric to alleviate stomach pain associated with digestive problems.

Intrigued by its centuries-old medicinal reputation, modern-day researchers have conducted thousands of studies on turmeric, with many focused on its capabilities for pain relief. Though turmeric has hundreds of potentially beneficial vitamins and minerals, much of the research has centered on its most active ingredient, curcumin - a polyphenol that gives turmeric its golden hue and free radical scavenging antioxidants that support immune health.

What Studies Show

Studies have found that curcumin can inhibit both the activity and development of enzymes that cause white blood cells to mistakenly attack healthy tissues and organs. In a 2006 study, researchers at the University of Arizona found that a turmeric extract composed of curcuminoids - the family of compounds that include curcumin - blocked inflammatory pathways, hindering the development of a protein that triggers swelling and pain. The study noted that the extract was “efficacious in preventing joint inflammation when treatment was started before, but not after, the onset of joint inflammation.”

Though the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health asserts that “claims of curcuminoids found in turmeric reducing inflammation aren’t supported by strong studies,” it cites preliminary studies showing that curcuminoids may control knee pain from osteoarthritis similarly to over-the-counter painkillers do. Some pivotal studies on curcumin include:

  • In 2008, a study by Baylor University Medical Center researchers found that curcumin regulated the expression of multiple molecules in the inflammatory pathway and moderate doses of curcumin for up to three months was safe. A 2009 study published in the The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine compared curcumin with ibuprofen for pain relief in more than 100 patients with knee osteoarthritis over six weeks. Researchers concluded that the curcumin extracts eased pain, improved function and seemed “similarly efficacious and safe as ibuprofen to treat knee OA.”
  • A 2010 clinical trial in Italy involving 100 patients with knee osteoarthritis revealed that those who took a special turmeric extract containing curcumin experienced improvement in joint pain, stiffness and function over eight months. They could also cut back on their use of standard NSAIDs painkillers and avoid medication side effects such as stomach upset.
  • A 2011 randomized, placebo-controlled study from India explored the use of curcumin in turmeric for pain relief in patients recovering from gallbladder surgery. The study concluded that taking turmeric daily for up to three weeks helped ease postoperative pain and fatigue in patient-reported outcomes.
  • In 2012, as part of a small joint study in India and the U.S., researchers divided 45 patients with rheumatoid arthritis into three groups. The first group received a special, highly absorbable form of curcumin, while the second group received the NSAID drug diclofenac and the third group was given both. After eight weeks, the groups that took the just curcumin and both the spice and the drug showed less joint tenderness, irritation and swelling than those who took just the drug. The study also noted that “the curcumin treatment was found to be safe and did not relate to any adverse events.” Researchers added that “our study provides the first evidence for the safety and superiority of curcumin treatment in patients with active RA, and highlights the need for future large-scale trials to validate these findings in patients with RA and other arthritic conditions.”
  • A small Iranian clinical trial published in the journal Phytotherapy Research in 2014 found that curcuminoids, when combined with an extract of black pepper and taken for six weeks, significantly improved pain and function - but not stiffness - for people with mild to moderate knee osteoarthritis, compared to a placebo.

Many doctors have shared their own anecdotal experiences of using turmeric for pain relief, but research is not conclusive. Though studies indicate that turmeric shows promise for its ability to ease symptoms of multiple inflammatory states in the body, researchers agree that larger, more randomized trials are needed to explore its efficacy as a therapeutic option.

A review of clinical studies by European researchers noted that despite strong molecular evidence for its potency to target inflammatory pathways, “naturally occurring curcumin cannot achieve its optimum therapeutic outcomes due to its low solubility and poor bioavailability.” A 2016 meta-analysis of the efficacy of turmeric extracts and curcumin for alleviating symptoms of joint arthritis found that no conclusive evidence that turmeric can replace commercial pain medication like ibuprofen, though it may be used in conjunction with NSAIDs.

Getting Turmeric Into Your Diet

Fighting chronic, persistent pain and curious to see if turmeric can help? Turmeric is generally safe when taken orally or applied to the skin as a paste. Research shows that adding a bit of fat or piperine - the active compound in black pepper - to turmeric can help the body absorb the curcumin into the bloodstream better. Many turmeric or curcumin supplements and extracts sold in stores include piperine to aid absorption.

Keep in mind that supplements aren’t as closely regulated as medication, so it’s best to check with your doctor before taking them. While experts discourage using turmeric in place of prescribed medication by your physician, it can serve as a supplement.

When taking turmeric for pain relief, the Arthritis Foundation suggests the following dosages:

For osteoarthritis: One 400–600 milligram capsule three times a day or 0.5–1 gram of powdered root (up to 3 grams per day)

  • For rheumatoid arthritis: 500 milligrams twice a day

Because the curcumin in turmeric can act as a blood thinner and slow blood clotting, avoid taking it at least two weeks before any scheduled surgery and do not mix with blood thinners like warfarin and Plavix. It may also worsen gallbladder problems, so don’t take it if you have gallstones. Experts also discourage taking turmeric medicinally if you are pregnant, have an iron deficiency, or take medication for diabetes or high blood pressure. Taking too many turmeric supplements at once or over a period has been shown to cause diarrhea, an upset stomach, acid reflux, or nausea. Doses are not meant to be taken indefinitely, but until issues with pain are resolved.

When taken appropriately, turmeric has few adverse effects. The best way to reap its potential benefits is though cooking and flavoring food with the powered spice or raw root found in supermarkets. Eating it with meals or a snack allows you to get more of its phytonutrients and antioxidants.

Not a fan of curry? Get your daily dose of turmeric by adding a half teaspoon to your morning smoothie or sprinkling a dash mixed with pepper in your scrambled eggs. Mix it with olive or coconut oil to use in salad dressing or roast with veggies. You can even enjoy turmeric in a cup of hot tea or golden milk - turmeric mixed with milk, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger and honey. And all you need is a teaspoon or two of turmeric to enjoy its savory goodness in soups, stir-frys, lentils and other dishes.

You can also make a paste to apply to achy and irritated joints by mixing two teaspoons of turmeric and a teaspoon of coconut oil with ground ginger, salt, or lime juice. If you have a painful cut or burn, studies show that curcumin may help promote skin recovery and support the growth of new tissue.

Turmeric is no cure-all for pain, but when combined with a balanced diet, exercise and other healthy habits, it can provide some immediate relief without the side effects of medication. Plus, it makes your food tastier, too!