Frustrated with the effectiveness of their current chronic pain treatment, many patients (up to 40%), especially those living with chronic pain, turn to natural supplements in hopes of finding disease-modifying relief. Some of these patients use the supplements as an alternative to conventional medicine while others use it in conjunction with current treatments. The problem, explains James Torr, PharmD, Assistant Professor at Lipscomb University, is that while more and more patients are using supplements, up to 50% of patients don’t tell their doctors. Doctors can help patients choose the safest supplement for their needs.
Doctors and pharmacists are trained to follow an evidence-based medicine model. At this point, there is not enough evidence for doctors to recommend the use of most supplements. The regulation of these products is much less rigorous than the regulation of pharmaceutical drugs, and the studies being done are generally too small-scale to apply to all patients.
In response to the demand for alternative medications, scientists are beginning to study their effects on patient health. As long as the supplements are safe, there is no reason to tell a patients to stop taking something they feel is helping. However, not all supplements-including ones available on grocery store shelves- are safe for all patients.
Alternative therapies, such as turmuric, cumen-phosphatidylcholoine complex, avocado and soybean oil combinations, and many more are available for patients in health food stores, grocery stores, and over the counter. The fact that they are both natural and easily accessible often leads patients to assume that they are safe. Research is beginning to show that in some cases, supplements may lead to negative drug or disease interactions. For example, a small study showed that while cumen-phosphatidyl choline complex is safe for many patients, it can increase bleeding in patients taking anti-coagulants, it may have a negative interaction in patients taking sulfasalazine, and it could exacerbate hypoglycemia in patients taking hypoglycemic agents.
Torr emphasized, was that while doctors and patients may not always agree on the effectiveness of alternative medicine, they still need to talk about it. If patients want to take natural supplements in addition to their traditional care, a doctor can help them choose the safest options based on existing research and the patient’s medical history.