Yes it’s true- studies show caffeine can be an effective pain reliever. Caffeine blocks receptors in the brain called adenosines, which enhances the effect of dopamine chemicals associated with pain relief.
Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) reported in the journal Psychopharmacology, that regularly consuming caffeine can make a noticeable difference in your ability to withstand pain. The study involved 62 healthy men and women, who shared with researchers their caffeine consumption from coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks and chocolate, over seven days. The group averaged 170 mg of caffeine a day, about the same as two cups of coffee. Fifteen percent of the group consumed more than 400 mgs a day and one participant drank the equivalent of 6.5 cups of coffee daily. After a week, the volunteers were subjected to painful heat and pressure tests in a laboratory. Researchers discovered that people who regularly consumed caffeine significantly reduced their sensitivity to pain. The more caffeine they consumed, the lower their sensitivity.
Excessive caffeine consumption can have serious medical side effects like increased blood pressure and heart rate, and can exacerbate indigestion, so use caution.
In the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), thirty clinical studies involving more than 10,000 patients conducted during the last 20 years have been analyzed to assess the value of adding caffeine to analgesics. To obtain the same amount of response from an analgesic without caffeine (i.e. Tylenol, aspirin), requires a dose that is approximately 40% greater than one with caffeine. That’s why many over the counter pain relievers, like Excedrin, have added caffeine for years.
South Korean researchers added caffeine to the opioid medication of patients with advanced cancer and found that it decreased their pain and improved alertness. Other research has corroborated the effectiveness of caffeine alone as a pain reliever. A University of Georgia study revealed that two cups of coffee can reduce post workout pain by nearly half. And a study at the University of Pittsburgh found that a single 200 mg tablet of caffeine was effective in treating muscle pain. A study published in a 2003 issue of The Journal of Pain showed that caffeine can also reduce muscle pain during moderate intensity exercise. Some participants were given large doses of caffeine prior to cycling exercise, others were not. The caffeine group had significant less muscle pain during the exercise than the placebo group.
Although the data seems impressive, take care. Excessive caffeine consumption can have serious medical side effects like increased blood pressure and heart rate, and can exacerbate indigestion, so use caution. The Mayo Clinic says 400 mg per day is a safe dosage (about 4 cups of coffee). A few cups could be a useful addition to your pain treatment regimen.
If a person consumes caffeine every day, in order to experience its pain relieving effect, a larger dose than the typical daily amount must be consumed. This can be problematic when increasing to amounts that may cause harm. Since people build up a tolerance to the caffeine molecule, severe withdrawal symptoms can be experienced when the daily dose is missed.
I remember years ago wondering why I was getting severe headaches only on the weekend. I was fine the rest of the week. It took me a while to realize that during the week I constantly drank the prepared coffee and iced tea available in the office without a second thought. Weekends were the only time I didn’t partake. In fact, I didn’t even have a coffee maker at home back then. Unfortunately, I had established a need for the caffeine, and believe me when I say withdrawal is awful. The Mayo clinic may recommend up to 4 cups a day, but that amount killed me when there was any break in intake. I spent weeks weaning down to 1-2 a day maximum. Now I can miss a day without consequences.
Therefore the best way to get effective pain relief from caffeine is:
1) consume only when pain relief is needed.
2) increase intake from baseline consumption when pain relief is needed.
3) don’t vary from your normal intake daily or withdrawal symptoms may occur, exacerbating your pain.
Caffeine may be an effective way to reduce and manage pain, but only when the above guidelines are followed. The best option is to use it sporadically, just as you would any other pain reliever. That way it has the most potency, with the least side effects. As with any treatment plan, clear it with your healthcare provider before starting.