While hot wing challenges and eating chili made with ghost peppers seems like a fool’s errand, the chemical compounds found in several types of peppers have been proven to help with a variety of pain condition. Before we dive into the science of capsaicin for pain, it is interesting to note some of the information about hot peppers in general.

The magic of the pepper is in the hidden benefits beyond flavor and heat.

Capsaicin is the chemical compound in peppers that gives them heat that is unrelated to the flavor. The compound is not water soluble and is flavorless and odorless. When cutting hot peppers, it is important to wash your hands with soap before touching your face, eyes, or other sensitive parts of the body as this compound can stay on your hands. Keep in mind that pepper spray is used for non-lethal self-defense because of the extreme, debilitating pain that capsaicin can cause when it touches the human eye. While the effects are not permanent, they can be quite uncomfortable.

How we measure the heat in peppers has remained largely unchanged since the early 20th century. A chemist named Wilbur Scoville developed a scale where participants in a study tasted a solution of pure chili and sugar water that was increasingly diluted until they no longer felt pain from the test. Numbers were then assigned to each variety of chili based on the amount of solution it needed to no longer be painful to taste.

The test is not perfect since it is based on individual palates, but it does give us a jumping off point for understanding the heat differences between a bell pepper and a habanero. Several hotter peppers have been cultivated or discovered in the decades since and have been added to the list based on the heat they produce as well.

Doctors as early as the late 19th century began to notice a correlation between the heat extracted from peppers and the reduction of certain types of pain.

Today capsaicin is used to treat a number of chronic pain conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, psoriasis, shingles, diabetic neuropathy, back pain, fibromyalgia pain, and headaches.

Most often, you will find capsaicin prescribed by physicians as a topical treatment. Capsaicin begins by stimulating and then slowly decreasing the overall intensity of your body’s pain signals. Some patients experience an increase of pain at first, but the sensation will typically subside after the first application. Capsaicin works by stimulating the natural compounds in the body that are responsible for communicating pain between the spinal nerves and other parts of the body. There are multiple creams available on the market both over-the-counter and as a prescription from your physician. Talk with your specialist about the options to find out what may work best for you.

Capsaicin can also be taken as a supplement. Some individuals will simply add more peppers to their diets to acquire the benefits of additional capsaicin in their systems. It is also available as a capsule through many health food stores. In this way, capsaicin may have more benefits than just helping with chronic pain.

These less talked about benefits include:

  • Improved digestion and fighting of bacterial infections of the digestive system
  • Possible prevention of heart disease
  • Stimulation of the cardiovascular system that may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure
  • Prevention of clotting or atherosclerosis
  • The production of an antioxidant that fights free radicals in the body
  • Help with lung conditions by making mucus thinner and strengthening lung tissues

Most of us have experienced the sinus clearing effects of spicy foods so this can be taken to another level and used as a natural supplement to help keep congestion at bay.

Because of the sensitive nature of capsaicin use, don’t use more than the prescribed amount or double up on doses. It is important to stick to a strict schedule for your applications so you don’t shock your system or cause inadvertent damage.

While you should also let your doctor know about all medications and supplements that you are using, it is generally accepted that capsaicin has no known drug interactions.

Capsaicin is considered generally safe for anyone to take. While pepper eaters in the U.S. have a lower tolerance to the heat of peppers than their Central and South American counterparts, most people don’t suffer from permanent negative effects from the consumption or application of capsaicin. The worst side effects are usually felt by individuals who aren’t used to the heat produced by large volumes of capsaicin found in hotter pepper varieties such as cayenne, ghost peppers, or scotch bonnets. Always wash your hands when cooking peppers or applying topical capsaicin cream to avoid accidentally touching your eyes or other sensitive body parts.

However, like with any treatment there may be some circumstances where capsaicin is not advisable. If you’ve experienced an allergic reaction to peppers in the past or you have open sores or cuts near the application zone, you should avoid this treatment option. If you develop any sort of skin irritation beyond the initial shock of the capsaicin itself, talk with your doctor about alternatives.

Like any other acquired taste, you can get used to the heat of increasingly hotter peppers the more you experiment with them in cooking. Even when trying topical capsaicin treatments you may want to start with smaller areas or doses as your body adjusts to the sensations caused by the chemical compound. Adding more spice into your diet can also help your body become more comfortable with capsaicin in general. When cooking with peppers, keep in mind that the seeds and internal membranes are the hottest parts so discard them and use only the flesh of the pepper.

Capsaicin can be an excellent natural treatment for many forms of chronic pain including fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, back pain, and diabetic neuropathy.

Depending on your individual needs, topical treatments or supplements may be the best solution for you. Talk with your doctor today about adding capsaicin to your treatment plan and don’t be shy about adding more hot peppers to your diet. The more you know about capsaicin, the better prepared you can be for this treatment option.

Do you think that the capsaicin found in hot peppers can be a viable treatment for your chronic pain condition?

Image by Warren Rachele via Flickr

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