Can Turmeric Relieve Pain? One Doctor's Opinion

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Steve Lupton / Corbis

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And you just can't research food supplements without bumping into the affable Dr. Andrew Weil (also from Arizona). Yes, he has a dog in the fight, with a financial interest in turmeric-containing products, which have, he strongly claims, benefits ranging from fighting Alzheimer's to fighting breast cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and psoriasis. Too many to be true? Maybe. But I also know this: all of these diseases, like Jerry's arthritis, share a common need. They depend on the formation of new blood vessels — basically, on specific local instances of inflammation. And that's what Funk's papers showed the turmeric controls. With the work of Funk and Weil, what I had seen in Jerry was starting to make sense. But it wasn't the papers that convinced me. It was how Jerry did in the hospital.

Jerry was a post-op marvel. There are some patients in their 70s who surprise us with how quickly they recover from an operation. And yes, we did it the minimally invasive way. But Jerry outperformed them all. A week post-op, he walked in without a cane, without a limp, got up from a chair faster than I can and showed me a healed surgical wound that looked a month old. The "stiffness" was gone; he now had normal range of motion. Jerry was quite pleased — happy with my job — but there was also an air of pride or confidence, perhaps victory, about him. He was just so convinced that he had been eased by and sped through the healing process thanks to turmeric.

I still chalked it up, then at least, to psychology. This worked fine until about six weeks ago, when we did his other hip. He got better even faster. Home the second day. No pain meds. Lots of yellow capsules on the table. I decided to get some for myself.

All doctors, or at least, in my opinion, the good ones, utilize a curious faculty, little discussed, called empathy. Is it real? Can one human truly feel what another feels? The answer to this lurks in deep waters; the scientific reality of any human sensation is largely unprovable. There are many professional benefits to feeling what your patient feels, though. Empathy breaks through communication barriers. It often makes patients like you. Sometimes it can tell you when they're lying. In Jerry's case, it told me this for sure: his hip didn't hurt. But was it mental or physical?

I have since experimented with my own aches and pains. We already had some tumeric in the kitchen. It's pretty good on pizza and has a mustard-curry taste. Seems to help with pain. People I know, it turns out, are already taking the stuff. Same proud, confident, happy reaction to my using it as Jerry's. And it's all over the Internet. It's fun being on this sort of team for a change. Devotees of the magic spice are a bit like those of the holy herb — a cozy klatch of believers with a strong "us vs. them" perception of the world. Fairly logical, not too rigorous scientifically, very empathetic. Does turmeric really work? Or am I just resonating with Jerry? With a lot more respect for the question, and for turmeric takers, I will let you know when I figure it out.

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