Many of us turn to medications to relieve pain. But research has shown that you can help reduce specific types of pain and avoid the side effects of drugs-just by choosing the right foods. Here, the common causes of pain and the foods that can help. Unless otherwise noted, aim to eat the recommended foods daily…


Osteoarthritis causes pain and inflammation in the joints.

Best foods: Bing cherries, ginger, avocado oil and soybean oil.

A study in The Journal of Nutrition found that men and women who supplemented their diets with Bing cherries (about two cups of cherries throughout the day) had an 18% to 25% drop in C-reactive protein, a sign of inflammation. Bing cherries contain flavonoids, plant-based compounds with antioxidant properties that lower inflammation.

Ginger also contains potent anti-inflammatory agents that can reduce joint pain. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that 63% of people who consumed ginger daily had less knee pain when walking or standing. I recommend one to two teaspoons of ground fresh ginger every day.

Avocado oil and soybean oil contain avocado soybean unsaponifiables (ASUS), which reduce inflammation and cartilage damage in arthritis patients.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

This autoimmune disease causes systemic inflammation–your joints, your heart and even your lungs may be affected.

Best foods: Fish and vitamin C-rich foods.

The omega-3 fatty acids in fish increase the body's production of inhibitory prostaglandins, substances with anti-inflammatory effects. A recent study found that some patients who consumed fish oil supplements improved so much that they were able to discontinue their use of aspirin, ibuprofen and similar medications.

Ideally, it's best to eat two to three servings of fish a week. Or take a daily fish oil supplement. The usual dose is 1,000 milligrams (mg) to 3,000 mg. Be sure to work with a qualified health professional to determine what supplement regimen is right for you.

Foods rich in vitamin C (citrus fruits, berries, red bell peppers) are effective analgesics because they help decrease joint inflammation. These foods also help protect and repair joint cartilage. A study in American Journal of Nutrition found that patients who ate the most vitamin C-rich fruits had 25% lower risk for inflammation.


Gout is a form of arthritis that causes severe joint pain that can last for days—and that "flares" at unpredictable intervals.

Weight loss-and avoiding refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, commercially prepared baked goods and other processed foods—can help minimize flare-ups. You also should eat foods that reduce uric acid, a metabolic by-product that causes gout.

Best foods: Celery and cherries.

Celery contains the chemical compound 3-n-butylphthalide, which reduces the body's production of uric acid, Celery also reduces inflammation.

Both sweet (Bing and tart (Montmorency) pie cherries contain flavonoids, although the bulk of science supporting the anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties of cherries has been done using tart cherries. (An exception is the study that found that Bing cherries relieve osteoarthritis. It is hard to find fresh tart cherries, so I recommend dried tart cherries or tart cherry juice.


These debilitating headaches are believed to be caused by the contraction and dilation of blood vessels in the brain.

Best foods: Oats, coffee and tea.

Oats are high in magnesium, a mineral that helps reduce painful muscle spasms-including those in the muscles that line the arteries. In one study, researchers found that people who took 600 mg of magnesium daily had a 41.6% reduction in the number of migraines over a 12-week period, compared with only a 15.8% reduction in those who took a placebo.

You can get plenty of magnesium by eating high-magnesium foods. A small bowl of cooked oat bran (about one cup), for example, provides more than 20% of the daily value. Other high-magnesium foods include oatmeal, almonds, broccoli and pumpkin seeds.

The caffeine in coffee and tea helps relieve migraine pain. The antioxidants in both beverages also are helpful.

Caution: Consuming too much caffeine-or abruptly giving it up if you are a regular coffee or tea drinker-can increase the frequency and severity of headaches. Limit yourself to a few cups daily.

Muscle Pain

It usually is caused by tension, overuse or an actual injury, such as a strain or sprain. Because tendons and ligaments the tissues that attach your muscles to your bones) have little circulation, muscle-related pain can be very slow to heal.

Best foods: Tart cherries and rose hip tea.

Eating as few as 20 dried tart cherries can help reduce pain. So can tart cherry juice.

Example: At the Sports and Exercise Science Research Centre at London South Bank University, researchers gave one-ounce servings of tart cherry juice twice daily to athletes who did intense workouts. These athletes regained more of their muscle function more quickly than those who didn't drink the juice. Studies also have shown that the juice can reduce muscle pain after exercise.

Office Buildings Are Linked to Headaches

When exposed to an uncomfortable indoor environment, 38% of workers reported having a headache one to three days a month...18% had a headache one to three days a week...and 8% had headaches daily. An uncomfortable indoor environment was defined as one with abnormal levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, light, humidity and/or temperature. Headaches ranged from mild to migraine, and women were more likely to report headaches than men.

Study of 4,326 office workers in 100 large office buildings led by researchers in the department of physiology and health science, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, published in Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology.

Rose hip tea is high in vitamin C, as well as anthocyanins and a substance called galactolipid-all of which have been shown to combat inflammation and may help ease muscle and joint pain. Have several cups daily.

Nerve Pain

Inflammation or injury to a nerve can cause a burning, stabbing pain that is difficult to control with medications. Examples of conditions that cause nerve pain include sciatica (pain along the sciatic nerve from the lower spine down the back of the leg) and neuropathy (nerve damage), a painful complication of diabetes.

Best foods: Turmeric, figs and beans.

Turmeric, a yellow-orange spice that commonly is used in Indian and Asian cooking, is a very effective analgesic. Like ginger, it is an anti-inflammatory that has been shown to reduce pain about as well as ibuprofen-and with none of the side effects.

Both figs and beans–along with whole grains and green leafy vegetables–are rich in B-complex vitamins, which are essential for nerve health. One study, which looked at a form of vitamin B-1, found that patients who took as little as 25 mg four times daily had an improvement in neuropathy. Other B vitamins may have similar effects.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in