Can Turmeric Relieve Pain? One Doctor's Opinion

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Four in the morning, four more at night. That's eight big mustard-yellow capsules every day. They contain nothing but turmeric, a spice. But for Jerry, they are medicine. He loves the stuff — says it changed his life.

Now this sort of thing is not uncommon; I'd guess 20% to 30% of my patients are into some type of supplements or "nutriceuticals." But Jerry stands out. He's a conservative, older guy from that generation of men who were most definitely not "in touch with" their bodies. He's practical, worldly, wise and skeptical. He's not interested in any other remedies or practices. (Monogamy in the supplement world is a true rarity, and it commands respect there too.) He has, in fact, gotten so many friends and acquaintances to use the stuff that it's sold out of the stores where he buys it.

But what got me interested in Jerry's turmeric wasn't his testimonials or even his personality — it was seeing him bounce back from surgery.

Jerry had two bad hips; the joints didn't form quite right as he grew up. They degenerated and started to hurt as he entered his 60s. When he first started coming to me, I gave him the usual anti-inflammatory medications we use for arthritis pain. He had no side effects, but he wasn't helped much either, so he stopped the pills and lived with the pain. Then he found turmeric.

Soon enough, there was no pain at all. And his lower back and hands, which ached before, were also now pain-free. So I was curious last year, when at age 73 he came in and told me he was ready for a hip replacement. "It's just so stiff" is all he would say. He certainly had the limp, the trouble with stairs and the slow rise from a chair that you see in folks with hip arthritis. His X-ray showed bone-on-bone erosion and plenty of spurring; his examination showed the profound loss of motion you would also expect. Everything said "just do a hip replacement" — except for that one cardinal feature: pain.

He denied it. Even when I did the twisting maneuver we use to see if it's the hip that hurts, there was no wince, no ouch. I had never done the operation for anyone without pain. I explained this. And reasonable though he was, he still wanted a new hip, "to get rid of the stiffness."

Some kind of denial is going on here, was all I could think. I made sure he knew full well what the surgery would entail. He still wanted it. So I did the operation. "Can I keep up with the turmeric in the hospital?" he asked. I saw no reason why not. That's when I actually saw the big yellow capsules on his bedside table. And when I first gave them any serious thought.

Now, alternative-medicine doctors and orthopedic surgeons are miles apart on what eating plants can actually fix. Scurvy, night-blindness, constipation and, of course, hunger are the problems they tell us in medical school that plants can cure. Psychosomatic factors are said to underlie all the other "benefits." But I looked and found two well-done scientific papers studying the effects of turmeric on a group of patients who I thought should be far less likely to be affected by psychosomatic factors. Because they were rats.

At the University of Arizona, researchers led by endocrinologist Janet Funk injected a bacterial substance known to cause joint inflammation (which is what arthritis ultimately is) into the bellies of the rodents. If the researchers gave them turmeric first (also by injection into the abdomen), there was far less joint swelling produced. A specific active ingredient of the turmeric worked better still. A rigorous protocol and pictures of the rats' normal and swollen joints convinced me there was a real effect. Further experiments by the group even showed how turmeric turns down inflammation, by blocking production of the protein that turns on the gene that tells tiny blood vessels to grow.

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