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Chile peppers can help with neuropathic pain--maybe, a little

October 14, 2009 | 10:55 am


If you suffer from neuropathic pain, there's new evidence that capsaicin--the stuff in chile peppers that gives them their zing--might help you. A new review found that capsaicin helps 4 in 10 people who suffer from such pain, which is caused by damage to nerves and not a real stimulation of pain receptors in the skin.

The review was conducted by a team led by Oxford University scientists, prepared for the nonprofit Cochrane Collaboration, which evaluates medical research. It looked at nine studies involving 1,600 adults to reach its conclusions.

From a write-up of the study by the Health Behavior News Service:

"In seven studies, 449 participants used capsaicin 0.075 percent in a cream base applied three to four times daily to painful sites for up to 12 weeks. A control group of 325 participants used placebo cream. Of participants who received the active cream, 41% experienced 'some degree of pain relief, compared to about 26 percent with placebo,' " the two authors wrote in an e-mail message. The amount of pain relief varied among studies, from substantial (pain half gone or better) to undefined “improvement.”

The L.A. Times Health section recently reviewed capsaicin creams and other pain relief remedies for arthritis in its Healthy Skeptic column, which you can read here. (That article was written before the new Cochrane report was released). The article's bottom line: Creams containing menthol, salicylate or capsaicin are not likely to help very much, although according to one doctor quoted in the article, capsaicin creams are probably the best bet.

They're sold under brand names such as Zostrix, Capzasin-P and RT Capsin.

Neuropathic pain is kind of like a trick that a damaged body is playing on you: Pain nerves are activated--they "believe," if one cares to anthropomorphize nerves, that they've received a real pain message even though they haven't--they're just inappropriately activated.

No matter: A "pain" message travels to the brain, which can't tell the difference between a real jab with a needle and one that didn't really happen.

According to the Neuropathy Assn., maybe 20 million Americans suffer from peripheral neuropathy (damage to peripheral nerves), about 30% of them people with diabetes. In another 30% of cases, the cause is unknown.

In addition to pain, such damage can lead to other odd sensations such as a feeling of numbness on a patch of skin or a tingling sensation (like what I am experiencing right now next to my right shoulder blade). The association's website has a lot of useful information on treatments and coping, including videos of people describing their experiences. 

And here's more on neuropathic pain from the Merck Manual and the National Institutes of Health.

-- Rosie Mestel

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times