Fish Oil May Help Ease Back Pain

Study Shows Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Be Safe Alternative for Pain Relief

By Miranda Hitti
WebMD Medical News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
on Thursday, April 06, 2006

April 6, 2006 -- Fish oil supplements containing omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) might help treat neck and back pain, a new study shows.

Such supplements might be "a safer alternative" to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for some patients with spine-related pain, write Joseph Maroon, MD, and Jeffrey Bost, PAC.

Maroon and Bost work in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's neurological surgery department. Their study appears in Surgical Neurology.

The study doesn't prove that fish oil pills work as well as NSAIDs for back pain, note Maroon and Bost. They call their study a "starting point" for research on omega-3 fatty acids and other nonpharmaceutical treatment alternatives for spine-related pain.

Patients Studied

Maroon and Bost studied 250 people seen by a neurosurgeon for nonsurgical neck or back pain -- mainly with degenerative disc disease, in which discs that serve as shock absorbers in the spine wear down.

"Degenerative disc disease is one of the greatest causes of pain and disability in the United States, affecting approximately one out of four people at some time in their lives," Maroon says in a news release from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

All of the patients were taking NSAIDs; three-quarters were taking Cox-2 inhibitors, a type of NSAID. None was allergic to fish or taking blood-thinning drugs.

NSAIDs and Cox-2 inhibitors are potent painkillers, but their side effects can include stomach ulcers and a rise in heart and stroke risks in some patients, particularly with higher doses of the drugs.

Two Cox-2 inhibitors, Vioxx and Bextra, have been taken off the market over those possible heart risks. Vioxx came off the market in September 2004; Bextra was removed in April 2005.

Switching to Fish Oil

Maroon and Bost asked the patients in their study to take fish oil supplements containing the omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (decosahexaenoic acid).

For the study's first two weeks, patients' daily dose totaled 2.4 grams of omega-3 EFAs. After that, patients were to cut that dose in half and taper off their NSAIDs over the next one or two weeks.

About a month into the study, the researchers sent surveys to the patients. Most participants (125 patients) returned the surveys after taking fish oil for 75 days, on average.

The survey shows that most patients -- 78% -- were taking the 1.2-gram daily dose of omega-three EFAs. The others were taking the 2.4-gram daily dose. More than half had stopped taking any NSAIDs for pain (59%).

Less Pain Reported

The survey's findings include:

  • 60% of patients noted an overall improvement in their pain and said their overall pain had improved.
  • 60% of patients specifically reported less joint pain.
  • 80% of patients stated that they were satisfied with their improvement.
  • 88% of patients said they would keep taking fish oil supplements.

The researchers note "several weaknesses" in their own study. Fish oil supplements weren't compared to supplements without omega-3 EFAs. Patients may have hoped that the supplements would bring pain relief, a belief that may have swayed their views.

However, past research on arthritis has shown less inflammation and joint pain with omega-3 EFAs, note Maroon and Bost.

"Our study adds to the numerous previously published studies showing the health benefits of omega-three EFAs, which include blood clot prevention, pain reduction, immune system boosting, and healthy blood vessel dilation," Maroon says in the news release.

They call for "appropriately designed studies" to confirm the effectiveness of omega-3 essential fatty acids for spine-related pain.

SOURCES: Maroon, J. Surgical Neurology, April 2006; vol 65: pp 326-331. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Handout on Health: Back Pain." WebMD Medical News: "Painkillers Up Post-Heart Attack Death." WebMD Medical News: "Study: Most Painkillers Up Heart Attack Risk." WebMD Medical News: "Timeline of Pain Reliever Controversy." News release, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

© 2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved



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