Dangers of Prescription Painkillers and Ayurvedic Alternatives

A face turned away, suffering acute pain. Lithograph by P. Simonau, 1822, after C. Le Brun.

A face turned away, suffering acute pain. Lithograph by P. Simonau, 1822, after C. Le Brun.

When we reach for an over-the-counter painkiller or take a prescription drug for inflammation, we might imagine that these easily available medications are bound to be safe and harmless. Yet the FDA has recently strengthened its warnings regarding a group of drugs known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NASAIDs). These medications include ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (Aleve). Some combination medicines, such as multi-symptom cold products, also contain NSAIDs. Note, although technically an NSAID, aspirin itself is not included in this warning. And acetaminophen (tylenol) is not an NSAID; although it has its own dangers and should never be taken at more than the recommended dose.

My own negative view of ibuprofen goes back forty years, dating from what is possibly the worst Saturday afternoon of my life. On a dreary day in 1974, I was on duty as a medical student at Hackney Hospital when we admitted a youngish woman with a severe gastrointestinal bleed. The junior doctor and I summoned the surgeon from his family weekend and together the three of us worked to remove one third of the woman's stomach. A rheumatoid arthritis patient, she had consumed slightly more than the recommended dose of ibuprofen. Our surgeon attributed her catastrophic bleed to this fact. I'm sure you can understand that I've detested ibuprofen and similar NSAIDs ever since.


Yet the latest warnings from the FDA are not about the relationship between NSAIDs and gastrointestinal bleeding. Instead they focus on the fact that these drugs can increase the chance of a potentially fatal heart attack or stroke. We've known for some time that this relationship exists, but recently the warning has been strengthened. It has become clear that the increased stroke or heart attack risk affects not only long-term NSAID users, but even those who take NSAIDS for a short time. "There is no period of use shown to be without risk," says Judy Racoosin, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director of FDA's Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia, and Addiction Products. And while heart patients run the greatest risk, even those with no history of heart disease may be affected.

So how could we take care of pain and inflammation without using NSAIDs? Humans have always experienced pain and sought to relieve it. Ayurveda offers a range of ways to tackle pain and inflammation. On a home remedy level, here are a few suggestions:

  • Castor oil packs can be used locally for pain, swelling or menstrual cramps.
  • Massage painful or swollen areas with castor oil or mahanarayana oil before a hot shower or tub bath.
  • Swollen or painful areas of the body can be soaked in mustard seed tea. Use 1-heaped Tbsp of mustard seeds to a quart of water, boil until seeds sink and cool to a temperature that won't scald your skin.
  • Take a ginger-baking soda tub with one-third cup dry ginger powder and one-third cup baking soda in the tub.
  • Drink ginger tea--fresh ginger for vata and pitta, cut and sifted ginger for kapha. Use one tsp per cup and simmer for two minutes. Strain and drink.
  • Drink turmeric milk to relieve pain or inflammation. Use 1tsp turmeric per cup of milk and simmer for a few minutes. You can also add a couple of pinches of nutmeg or cardamom.
  • Drink garlic milk for severe menstrual cramps. Crush 1-3 cloves of garlic. Put in pan with 1cup milk and half cup water and boil down to one cup. Sip slowly.
  • Relieve headaches with a cold compress.

For more persistent pain or inflammatory conditions such as migraine headaches, arthritis or fibromyalgia, visit an Ayurvedic practitioner or Ayurvedic doctor. There are many specific herbs and combinations that can be used to relive various pain-related conditions. In addition, topical treatments may be recommended such as nasal drops or shirodhara (oil stream treatment) for migraines, douche treatments to help prevent menstrual cramps or special applications for arthritis. If you have a chronic illness involving pain and or inflammation, your Ayurvedic practitioner may recommend pancha karma, a series of cleansing treatments to help remove toxins underlying the condition.

From an Ayurvedic standpoint, while it is important to relive pain, the most important part of treating any condition is to understand and remove or treat the cause. This is of much greater value than masking the symptoms by taking drugs with possibly fatal side effects.

Alakananda Ma M.B., B.S. (Lond.) is an Ayurvedic Doctor (NAMA) and graduate of a top London medical school. She is co-founder of Alandi Ayurveda Clinic and Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula in Boulder Colorado, as well as a spiritual mother, teacher, flower essence maker and storyteller. Alakananda is a well known and highly respected practitioner in the Ayurveda community both nationally and internationally.

Enliven your holistic health! Visit Alakananda Ma in Alandi Ashram’s ayurvedic clinic to support the overall rejuvenation of your body, mind, and spirit. In-person and virtual appointments available. Book now!