Gnarled, bumpy, and the color of old paper, ginger root looks more like it belongs in a witch’s cauldron than a doctor’s office, but can ginger help with pain? Ginger has long been used in Chinese medicine as an anti-inflammatory, and new research is indicating that for some people, ginger is an effective tool to help manage pain.

Can ginger help with pain? The research

A study from the University of Georgia built on previous work identifying ginger’s success as an anti-inflammatory in rodents. Patrick O’Connor, a professor in the college of education’s department of kinesiology, led two studies that looked at the effects of raw and heat-treated ginger on muscle pain. Seventy-four study participants ingested either raw or heat-treated ginger over 11 days and then performed moderately taxing exercise of the arms.

The effects were marked: ginger reduced pain in both sets of study participants by 25%, with both heat-treated and raw ginger producing approximately the same results. O’Connor noted that this type of exercise-induced pain is very common across all types of activity. Ginger can help with this type of muscle pain, perhaps by reducing inflammation in the taxed muscle.

But ginger can help with other types of pain, too. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, suffered by approximately 20 to 27 million people in the U.S. This wear-and-tear condition affects the large, weight-bearing joints in the body. A study from the University of Miami found that ginger could reduce this type of pain by as much as 40%. In a six-week double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 247 participants received either a highly concentrated extract of two ginger species, Zingiber officinale and Alpinia galangal, or a placebo.

The study’s lead author, Roy Altman, MD, now at the University of California, Los Angeles, believes these results follow earlier the earlier findings linked to rodent research, noting that:

“Research shows that ginger affects certain inflammatory processes at a cellular level.”

Can ginger help with pain because of its anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties?

Most of the studies on the anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of ginger have been conducted on rodents, but across the board the results have pointed towards strong potential for pain relief in humans. One study found that fresh ginger in particular had good potential anti-oxidant properties that were both protective and healing when it comes to cellular stress.

As far as anti-inflammatory effects, research has shown that different compounds in ginger can help with pain in different ways. One study found that ginger extract can reduce the elevated expression of NFκB and TNF-α in rats with liver cancer. Elevated levels of these two compounds are often linked to inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular disease, allergy, asthma, Crohn’s, diabetes, and arthritis.

Even without substantial human trials and research, it does seem that ginger can help with pain specifically as it relates to inflammation in the body.

There are some key things to remember when supplementing with ginger.

1. Always check with your doctor

Before adding significant amounts of ginger to your diet, talk with your doctor about potential issues, including drug interactions. This can be especially important for those people taking Coumadin (a blood thinner), as ginger can interfere with the effects of that medicine.

2. Choose the correct formulation

After checking with your doctor, this might be the most important consideration when supplementing with ginger. Ginger is available fresh or dried and in capsules, tinctures, teas, and foods.

Roberta Lee, MD, vice chair of the department of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, believes that capsules are the best way to go. The osteoarthritis study participants took capsules of 255 mg of ginger, about the equivalent of a bushel of fresh ginger. Capsules are the most efficient way to deliver large amounts of ginger’s vital anti-inflammatory compounds.

Dr. Lee advises that patients look for brands that use “super-critical extraction” in their processing for the most benefit.

3. Dose correctly

In consultation with your doctor, begin supplementing 100-200 mg of ginger daily for four to six weeks, keeping track of any changes in pain levels or mobility. Taking ginger capsules with food is important. Even though a small amount of ginger is excellent for nausea and upset stomach, large amounts of pure ginger can cause discomfort on an empty stomach.

4. Incorporate more ginger into your diet

If you are not ready to supplement with ginger, there are other ways to see if ginger can help with pain. Try an easy fresh ginger tea by steeping peeled, fresh ginger in hot water for ten minutes and sweetening lightly with honey. Other delicious recipes include:

Ginger can also be juiced and added to soups and smoothies.

Selecting, preparing, and storing fresh ginger

Most ginger in the supermarket is seven to ten months old. The skin of the ginger is darker and a bit tougher, and the interior is a darker yellow color. Occasionally you might see a blue streak running through your mature ginger. This is Hawaiian blue ring ginger, generally available in markets between December and April. This type of ginger is pungent and filled with juice.

Young ginger (also called spring or baby ginger) has a thinner skin that does not need to be peeled before use. This ginger is also less tough and fibrous which is what makes it perfect for making that pile of pink ginger that often accompanies sushi.

The large knot of ginger is called a “hand.” Look for firm, unwrinkled hands with no signs of mold. If you need a small piece, it is acceptable to break off only the piece that you need. Some practitioners of Chinese medicine believe that the most powerful pieces of ginger with the best medicine are those that are shaped most like a person.

Whether you buy a tiny piece or one large enough to look like a miniature person, ginger can be stored in the refrigerator loosely wrapped in a paper towel and sealed in a plastic container. Ginger can also be frozen whole, also in plastic. The advantage to freezing is that when needed you can use a microplane to grate whatever amount you need (without peeling first). Ginger will last for several weeks in the ‘fridge and several months in the freezer.

If you store your ginger in the ‘fridge and need to peel it before use, use a spoon for a safe and easy ginger-peeling method.

Can ginger help with pain? What has your experience been?


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