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December 9, 2018

Is Curcumin Making My Pain Worse?

Written by: Matthew Wagner, L.Ac., M.S.O.M.

Quick takeaway:

  • Curcumin is derived from turmeric.  If we want to know its effects on the body, we need to look at the effects of turmeric.  These effects are best described in medical systems that have used turmeric for thousands of years.
  • It’s not accurate, as some may claim, that because curcumin is extracted from turmeric root it is in some way safer or in some way free of the cautions of turmeric root itself.  If anything, because curcumin is so much stronger, these cautions hold even more.
  • Curcumin is good for certain types of pain that typically present as sharp and stabbing.
  • Curcumin may make other types of pain, such as dull, aching, chronic pain, worse over time.

Curcumin, derived from turmeric root, has become quite popular as a generic treatment of inflammation and pain.  It’s often promoted for use in a wide spectrum of disorders, from Osteo or Rheumatoid arthritis to chronic pain. It’s even used as a prophylactic, to be taken regularly to prevent potential inflammation and maintain good health.  It seems like everyone is jumping on the curcumin bandwagon. However, at the end of the day, it’s health benefits may be a little overhyped, and while it may help some types of pain, it can actually make other types worse.

So, what’s the deal with curcumin and how do you know when it’s a good idea or a bad idea to take it?  To understand this problem, let’s take a look at turmeric itself. Turmeric has been used in Chinese medicine and cuisine for thousands of years.  So, it’s safe to say they have a pretty good handle on what it does.

In Chinese medicine, turmeric is used for a specific type of pain that we would call “excess”.  This excess pain is caused by the body’s blood getting “stuck” and not moving.  We would see this most obviously in cases of trauma with bruising. But, this can also easily be long standing congestion and inflammation, that can either by systemic (whole body), or affecting specific organs, typically the liver and gallbladder.  In all of these cases, the symptoms of this type of “excess” pain are the same: sharp, stabbing, and fixed location with clear boundaries.  Oftentimes, this type of excess pain is also “hot”.  So, the area may feel hot or look slightly red.  Or, if it’s an internal condition, the person may run on the warmer side, or have a red tongue with a yellow tongue coating.  This is a stereotypical picture of inflammation.

However, there is a far more common condition of pain that presents with opposite symptoms.  This type of pain is dull, aching, constant, chronic, and vague/diffuse.  This type of pain is what we would call “deficiency”.  Instead of being due to the blood being stuck, it is due to the blood be “weak”.  In other words, the muscles aren’t being properly nourished (metaphorically speaking) and are therefore in a state of chronic, dull tension.  This is very common with age and demanding lifestyle.  This is, in fact, clinically far more common than the “excess” type of pain.

As you can see these two types of pain are night and day different. It’s like comparing an acute, black and blue bruise to a chronically tired, cold and achey back.  Consequently, it needs to be treated differently, as well.  In the acute bruise and injury, you need to tear things down; in other words, you need to clear out all of the stuck blood (inflammation) that’s getting in the way.  On the other hand, in the phase of chronic, dull pain, you need to build the area back up and strengthen it.

It should be obvious, then, that if turmeric can treat the excess-type, sharp and stabbing pain, it can easily make the dull and chronic pain worse.  After all, in dull, chronic pain, the area is already weak.  How would weakening it further help? Not only that, but excess turmeric over time can actually create pain in the body by taking an otherwise healthy body and weakening it in the same way that blood thinners do.  (This is precisely why anyone on blood thinners is strictly advise to avoid turmeric and curcumin!)

I’ve actually seen many people come in to the clinic with chronic that started only after they began taking curcumin supplements. Ironically, they were coming in for pain, but the very thing they were taking for pain was actually making them worse.  In many of these cases, we were able to resolve their pain simply by having them stop taking it.

One final consideration: of course curcumin and turmeric have their place in spectrum of treatment.  They are absolutely indicated for certain, specific presentations.  However, like anything with a medicinal effect, it’s not always good, all of the time.  One has to be careful when one takes anything, no matter what it is.  After all, you wouldn’t take ibuprofen on a daily basis as a general prophylactic, why would you do the same with curcumin?

Instead, save yourself months or years of pain by coming in and getting a proper diagnosis.  In many cases, acupuncture alone will effectively relieve the local pain in a health-restoring, non-addictive way.  If it turns out that you actually do need some form of herbal medicine, it’s essentially you get an accurate herbal diagnosis so that you can be sure you’re actually taking something that’s right for you.