How to Use Fish Oil for Joint and Lower Back Pain

One of the ironies of using aspirin, ibuprofen, Tylenol, and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for relieving the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and degenerated disks in the lower back is that the medications themselves accelerate destruction of the joints and disks.

NSAIDs break down the glycosaminoglycan proteins that arthritis and back pain sufferers take chondroitin and glucosamine to build up. Not only do these common pain relievers cause stomach upset, the make the problem underlying the pain even worse. And in many people, taking too many NSAIDs raises blood pressure. It's long been known that arthritis sufferers can use fish oil to control joint pain.

The ways in which fish oil reduces pain, however, have only recently been explained by science. Counteracting the Effects of "Bad" Diet Many people who have various forms of arthritis find that low-fat diets relieve pain, while high-fat diets make pain worse. A nearly vegan diet sometimes almost completely relieves pain. The problem with vegan and low-fat diets is that most people find them very difficult to follow.

Fish Oil For Pain

Fish oil offers another approach. Fish oil provides the essential fatty acids decosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) that the body can use to make hormones that regulate inflammation.fis

The body uses another fatty acid, arachidonic acid, to make the hormones that cause inflammation in the first place. The human body can make arachidonic acid out n-6 fatty acids found in peanut oil, soybean oil, and margarine, or it can use the arachidonic acid that occurs naturally in meat, eggs, or dairy.

Plants do not make arachidonic acid, just the facts that the human body can use to make them. (Some animals, such as cats, cannot convert the fats found in plant oils into arachidonic acid, so they must eat some animal foods.)

Arachidonic acid is converted into the hormones that make blood clot, that break down muscle tissue so it can be rebuilt into a stronger and larger form, and that, paradoxically, prevent the inflammation associated with the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Arachidonic acid does not in and of itself cause any illness.

Only when the byproducts of arachidonic acid are not balanced by the byproducts of DHA and EPA does inflammation run unchecked. Both kinds of fat are needed for health. The problem is that most people get a lot of arachidonic acid and not enough DHA and EPA to balance it.

Taking Fish Oil to Minimize Arthritis Pain

Atlantic Cod Atlantic Cod Photo by Patrick Gijsbers

In 2008, British scientists reported that taking 10 capsules of fish oil a day, each capsule delivering 220 mg of DHA + EPA, allowed volunteers who had rheumatoid arthritis to reduce their pain medication by about a third. There were a number of problems with this study.

The researchers apparently knew a lot about rheumatoid arthritis but not a lot about fish oil. The fish oil formula the British scientists used was especially "fishy." It contained a relatively small dose of essential fatty acids and a relatively high amount of "marine liquids" that cause diarrhea, flatulence, and fishy burps. And the scientists used cod liver oil, which is the kind of fish oil that has the taste that is hardest to disguise.

Mackerel Mackerel Photo by R M Koske

In 2009, French scientists reported that a similar test using an off-the-shelf product made with fish oils from south Pacific fish, rather than North Atlantic cod livers, enabled people with hip and knee arthritis to reduce their use of pain relievers by more than 50%.

The product used in the French Test, Phytalgic, also included 150 mg of the herb stinging nettle and also zinc and vitamin E. Most people who have severe degenerative arthritis of the hip and knee simply wait for their opportunities to have surgery to replace the joints.

In this study, many people who used the combination of fish oil, stinging nettle herb, zinc, and vitamin E not only were able to reduce their use of pain relievers but also reported less pain and stiffness and greater mobility in the affected joints.

There were no side effects from the treatment other than 1 out of 41 patients experiencing diarrhea and 2 reporting fishy burps. There have not been any clinical trials of fish oil for treating lower back pain. However, if the pain is due to degeneration of disks, that is, it has built up over a period of months or years; it is likely to respond to fish oil. If it is due to a single, identifiable injury, it probably won't.

How to Use Fish Oil for Joint Pain

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) Photo by Frank Xaver

The laboratory-tested fish oil for joint pain is Phytalgic, made by Phythea. If you have access to this brand of fish oil, then use it along with sensible changes in diet.

That is, limit your consumption of fatty foods, especially packaged foods listing soybean oil as a major ingredient and fatty meats and cheeses. It may take up to 60 days before you see results.

If you don't have access to Phytalgic, then I'd suggest a brand of fish oil made from south Pacific fish such as Xtend Life. The fish used to make Xtend Life fish oil is hokey, and the fish used to make Phytalgic are mackerel and herring, but it seems to be a good idea at least to avoid cod liver oil for this application.

Also, if you don't have access to Phytalgic, I suggest taking 15 mg of zinc gluconate a day, 100 IU of natural vitamin E a day, plus 150 mg of stinging nettle (dried herb in capsules). These are safe, readily available, and inexpensive supplements that complete the action of Phytalgic and closest approximate the formula used in the test. Would other brands of fish oil work? Probably, but Xtend Life is the nearest thing to Phytalgic. Other forms of zinc and the alpha-tocopherol form of vitamin E are likely also to be OK.

Selected Sources:

  • Galarraga B, Ho M, Youssef HM, Hill A, McMahon H, Hall C, Ogston S, Nuki G, Belch JJ. Cod liver oil (n-3 fatty acids) as an non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug sparing agent in rheumatoid arthritis.Rheumatology (Oxford). 2008 May;47(5):665-9. Epub 2008 Mar 24.
  • Jacquet A, Girodet PO, Pariente A, Forest K, Mallet L, Moore N. Phytalgic, a food supplement, vs placebo in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee or hip: a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Arthritis Res Ther. 2009;11(6):R192. Epub 2009 Dec 16.

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