Using a Jolt of Java to Keep the Pain at Bay

Everyday more than 4 billion people start their day with a cup of java to wake up, brush the sleep away and get going for the day. While most people drink coffee to get their day off to the right start, many are not aware of the health benefits associated with coffee: decreased risk of developing dementia, improved muscle growth, protection against some forms of cancer, etc. Now, new research has been released that links coffee to reduced physical pain.

The surprising finding is based on a study involving 48 volunteers who agreed to spend 90 minutes performing fake computer tasks meant to mimic office work. The tasks were known to cause pain in the shoulders, neck, forearms and wrists, and researchers wanted to compare how people with chronic pain and those who were pain-free tolerated the tasks.

As a matter of convenience, the scientists allowed people to drink coffee before taking the test “to avoid unpleasant effects of caffeine deprivation, e.g. decreased vigor and alertness, sleepiness, and fatigue,” they reported.

But when it came time to analyze the data, the researchers from Norway’s National Institute of Occupational Health and Oslo University Hospital noticed that the 19 people who drank coffee reported a lower intensity of pain than the 29 people who didn’t. In the shoulders and neck, for instance, the average pain intensity was rated 41 (on a 100-point scale) among the coffee drinkers and 55 for the coffee abstainers. Similar gaps were found for all pain sites measured.

For many years, caffeine has been used in combination with other medication in treating pain, usually migraines. Caffeine increases the speed at which the body absorbs medications, which is important when relieving pain. However, caffeine has never been believed to have a direct effect on pain relief. Of course, it may not have been caffeine alone that improved pain in the study. Perhaps some other chemical substances in coffee had an effect. Additionally, because this study was not designed to evaluate coffee’s effect on pain, many variables were not controlled for: how much coffee was consumed, differences between coffee and non-coffee drinkers, etc. Therefore, further research will be needed to determine if these results are accurate.

The research does raise an interesting point in that there are many elements in our daily lives that influence pain, even though we may not realize it. Nutrition, sleep, stress…..things we all think about but do not readily connect to why a person continues to experience pain. This is why many practitioners, including myself, look to take a comprehensive approach to managing pain. Incorporating diet modifications, stress management techniques, meditation, counseling, etc., in combination with standard approaches of exercise, procedures and medication in treating pain can provide a practical, long term approach to improving function and quality of life in chronic pain. Plus, an excuse for maintaining that coffee habit will make most people happy.

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