The powerhouse omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil offer a plethora of health benefits, including decreasing a person’s risk for heart disease. But did you know fish oil is also one of the more effective supplements for reducing chronic pain?

People experiencing headaches, backaches, nerve pain, and even autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis may find fish oil helps to reduce inflammation and related pain, according to Dr. David Leopold, director of Integrative Medical Education at San Diego’s Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine.

Fish oil is not a cure-all for chronic pain, but researchers say taking the supplement daily can help improve a person’s quality of life. 

Scientists from Duke University found that a form of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a long-chain, omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil, alleviates neuropathic pain associated with tissue injury. Researchers said the results hold promise for future medications that are less potentially addictive and dangerous than opioids. 

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of California, San Diego have discovered exactly how fish oil works in the body to achieve its healthful effects. Compounds in omega-3 fatty acids trigger a special receptor on macrophages, white blood cells that are integral to the immune system, and stop the cells from causing inflammation.

Macrophages rally to fight physical invaders, but produce inflammatory molecules in their efforts to keep the body healthy. Chronic inflammation causes damage and contributes to chronic pain. Researchers found that exposing macrophage receptors to fish oil activated them and halted inflammation. “It’s just an incredibly potent effect,” says one of the researchers, Dr. Jerrold Olefsky. 

Fish oil works to decrease pain at the cellular level by interfering with inflammation-causing immune cells.

Despite the healthful impacts of omega-3s, the body cannot produce them on its own, making diet and supplements the only source. The best food sources are fish: salmon, tuna, trout, and anchovies. Each 3.5 ounces of fish contains about 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3s are also found in plants, such as nuts. However, the short-chain omega-3s commonly found in plant-based sources aren’t as potent as the long-chain molecules found in fish.

Although natural remedies may offer relief for many people, Leopold says that supplementing with traditional NSAIDs may still be necessary during intense bouts of pain. Be sure to discuss taking any supplements with your doctor since they can impact the effectiveness of other medications.

Have you tried taking fish oil to manage chronic pain?

Image by Stephen Cummings via Flickr


Weekly updates on conditions, treatments, and news about everything happening inside pain medicine.

You have Successfully Subscribed!