Many people suffering chronic pain ingest a daily cocktail of pharmaceuticals: opioids, antispasmodics and antidepressants. It is therefore worrying that so little is known about the long term side-effects of taking such potent drugs in isolation, let alone in multiple combinations.
Of course, this concern is not lost on sufferers, many of whom actively investigate ‘alternative’ therapies, medicines and supplements in the hope of finding something – anything – which may be a suitable substitute for some or all of their more conventional medication.
Search online for such complimentary therapies and alongside the better known ones you’ll find a ragbag assortment of the weird, the wacky and the downright dishonest. Without mainstream research into a particular therapy, there is no persuasive evidence as to whether it will prove beneficial, innocuous or harmful and the prospect of limited research resources being utilised in this way is remote.
However, there are a number of notable exceptions where there has been research and clinical trials into certain supplements, some of which have been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine and in other cultures.
A good example was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial into the effects of using Panax Ginseng extract as a complimentary therapy for patients suffering Fibromyalgia. This was carried out at the University of Brasilia in Brazil and the results published in 2012.
Panax Ginseng has long been an important component in traditional medicines and its benefits have been stated to include a reduction in fatigue and pain. Reflective of the more general situation with supplements, until this particular study, there had been no previous clinical studies on the effect of Panax Ginseng on chronic pain.
The trial was carried out over a period of 12 weeks and the effects of Panax Ginseng (100 mg per day) were compared to the more conventional Amitriptyline (25 mg per day), as well as a placebo. This was a small trial involving only 38 patients suffering Fibromyalgia, of whom 12 were given Panax Ginseg, 13 Amitriptyline and 13 the placebo.
The trial demonstrated that Panax Ginseng seemed to effectively promote an improvement in pain, fatigue and sleep quality. Whilst it was less effective than Amitriptyline in improving anxiety, it seemed to effectively reduce the number of tender points and improved overall quality of life during the period of the study.
The researchers concluded that “This study represents the first step in the evaluation of the effect of Panax Ginseng in this group of patients. The extract was well-tolerated; however, further studies need to be carried out with larger sample sizes, with samples that include both male and female patients and with progressive doses to permit a better evaluation of the tolerability and efficacy of this treatment. Following further evaluation, Panax ginseng may represent an option for the treatment of acute and/or chronic pain and may constitute a future therapeutic option for patients with fibromyalgia.”
However, despite the encouraging results of this small trial, in the intervening period of five years, a larger scale trial has yet to begin. I have not been able to establish the exact reason for this but my hunch is that, as always, funding is an issue.