Blog Entries, Fundamentals of Wellness, Wellness

The truth about pain meds, even the mild ones…

Dr. Terry Wahls is an award winning pioneer in dealing with progressive neurological diseases. She should know. She has relapsing remitting MS. She went from a wheelchair to completing bike races by taking the principles of Functional Medicine and applying it to her life.

Reprinted it with permission from Dr. Wahls. See the link at end of the article to learn more about pain and diet and how to manage them safely.

“American adults take painkillers like candy. The use of Vicodin alone, the most popular pain relief drug in the country, has grown dramatically from 112 million doses prescribed in 2006, to 131 million in the U.S, according to ABC News. While taking pain medication is widespread, it’s not normal. Humans did not evolve to be in so much chronic pain.

So what should people in pain do?

As someone who used to suffer from chronic pain, and as a medical professional, I knew these pills are dangerous. But I didn’t know exactly how much until I began researching more and understanding the complexities. It was worse than I thought.Pain is a serious indication that something is wrong in your body and unfortunately, you can’t just medicate your way out of pain.

What are people in pain doing?

Taking larger doses when the pain is particularly bad. And I don’t blame them. It’s easier to take a pill than to deal with what’s causing the pain.Unfortunately, many people believe these medications are safe just because they’re sold over the counter or their doctor prescribed them.

The Truth About Pain Medications:


The biggest problem with narcotics is they become inactive over time.But they also cause severe constipation, disrupt bacteria in the bowels which leading to more disease and inflammation. Chronic use of narcotics creates more pain receptors in the brain and spinal cord, leading to something called central sensitization to pain. That means chronic narcotic use can become pain amplifiers the longer you’re on them.

These drugs actually create more pain receptors, which increases the severity of pain centrally in the brain. This is a vicious positive feedback loop. As you take more narcotics, you make the pain worse. Eventually these drugs can stop working, but the suffering continues. People begin to feel more and more hopeless, more and more disengaged from life.That is a key point. The longer you are on narcotics, the less effective they are and the more likely the pain will amplify.

Narcotics are for short term use, not for chronic pain.

Lots of primary care docs don’t realize this. Patients don’t realize it. In the chronic pain clinic I help run, we are constantly weaning patients off the narcotics. We teach our patients how to use diet and lifestyle to restore their health, and have cooking classes.

It is wonderful to watch patient as their pain diminishes, their function improves, they get re-engaged in life, begin doing things with their children and grandchildren again. They discover they’re far more comfortable using diet and lifestyle than they ever were, even before when they started using pain meds.

Your pain can be reduced using diet and lifestyle changes. We see it time and time again. People who have pain because of bad hips and knees and backs, whether they have an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis causing their pain, or fibromyalgia, neuropathic pain from nerve damage, or other conditions with chronic pain all are benefiting from the diet and lifestyle concepts we teach. You could be helped, too.

Even the over-the-counter drugs that people use for pain have are not without risk! Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why.


This seemingly harmless pill causes 100,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths every year. Not to mention erectile dysfunction occurring more and more frequently. Even in young men in their 20s and 30s.

Well-documented side effects of Ibuprofen include stomach ulcers, bleeding of the gut, liver damage, and kidney damage. This medication is popped like candy. We think it’s safe, but it causes bleeding and damage.

So many people are taking them for pain, but over time, they have to take higher and higher doses. What started out as low level use becomes high level, and then toxic levels of use because people are simply trying to stop their pain.

How Ibuprofen Harms

  • It damages the lining of the gut by blocking prostaglandin cycles.
  • It interferes with mucosal lining of the gut, leading to bleeding.
  • For some, blocking that same path will cause damage to the kidneys that can be low grade, and in serious cases leads to kidney failure and dialysis three times a week for the rest of your life.
  • Occasionally, this pathway will lead to chronic low level damage to the liver.
  • It increases heart attack risk for both men and women. Numerous studies on the newer NSAIDS linked their use to higher stroke and heart attack risk. Now these drugs have pulled from the market and we’re seeing that even the over-the-counter NSAIDS are also associated with higher risks of heart attacks.

Tylenol (Acetaminophen)

First and foremost, it’s well established that Tylenol can cause liver damage. It even has a black box warning saying it’s associated with liver failure. Now, if you have kidney failure, you can go on dialysis. But if you have liver failure, you die. Or you need to get a liver transplant. Daily users (and their physicians) are discovering their regular use of Tylenol has damaged their livers.

How Does Tylenol Related Damage Occur?

It has to be metabolized through the liver to be eliminated. The liver is responsible for removing the toxins that accumulate from everything going to gut and bacteria. You end up with toxic backup in the bloodstream, leading to more inflammation, more pain, more brain fog and worsening brain fog.

Depending on your genetics you may be more or less efficient at metabolizing the Tylenol. There are so many chemicals you encounter in your environment every day. The more medication you take, the more your body’s detox systems have to do. If you take Tylenol every day for pain and are on other prescription medication, you are at greater risk because your daily Tylenol puts too much strain on the liver to process and eliminate the other toxins we encounter each day.

Bacteria in our bowels do some metabolic processes, some helpful, some harmful. The liver’s job is to filter out the harmfuls ones and ‘detoxify’ those harmful bacterial toxins. But if the liver is strained and falling behind in its detoxification workload, some of the bacterial toxins spill into our bloodstream. As the detoxification pathways are strained, our liver has less capacity to work, and we need our liver to do a lot of work to keep us healthy!

Declining liver health makes your body less able to do some of the key chemistry functions of life. When that happens, we have higher levels of inflammation, all of our disease states are more resistant to treatment, we have worse fatigue, we are more irritable and we have more pain.You are, as a result, more tired, and more likely to have metabolic syndrome, prediabetes, and diabetes.

Seizure medications

Seizure medications are used to treat neuropathic pain. This is for pain related to diabetes, neuropathy, and polyneuropathy. They can be very effective for a time. But if you do not treat the underlying cause of the nerve damage, the pain relief is only temporary. The underlying disease processes continue to damage our cells. After a few years, the seizure meds can no longer control the pain. Plus, these drugs can have serious side effects as well.

When patients use diet and lifestyle, we find that they can get by on much lower doses and sometimes able to get off those drugs. For those with neuropathic pain, the two most popular meds are gabapentin and Lyrica, which can be very helpful for a while. Still, many people have difficulty with their side effects related to fatigue, brain fog, balance, gut issues, low vitamin D, severe depression, suicidality, and other problems.

Or, they are like me—over time, the underlying disease progresses, creating more damage, more inflammation, and more pain that neither the gabapentin or lyrica can control. It is better to get to get to the root cause of the neuropathic pain. It is better to stop the inflammation and repair the nerves. There’s no question that pain needs to be relieved, so we need to get to the root cause of pain.

Are Pain Medications Dangerous?

Some people take them without problems, but the reality is that they do cause significant harm to tens of thousands. Why risk using chronic medications for pain when their are safer, more effective options?

When I presented my research on the successful treatment of multiple sclerosis using diet and lifestyle changes at the Rheumatology research seminar, I was met with some skepticism. One of the physicians, someone I respect, asked, “Why should we ask people to do these tough-to-implement diet and lifestyle changes when we have medications that are so effective?” That’s a good question. Why choose diet and lifestyle changes over medication? Everybody knows someone who smokes, eats lots of sugar, and still lived into old age. Besides, their doctors often tell them that diet doesn’t make a difference to their autoimmune or other chronic disease issue.

The standard of care for treating rheumatoid arthritis and other systemic autoimmune problems is to keep seeing the patient and accelerating the dose of the immune-suppressing medication until the symptoms are manageable.

When the disease becomes more active—which often occurs as the person develops neutralizing antibodies to the biologic, disease-modifying medications for serious autoimmune disorders—it’s time to switch medications and start all over again. Or begin doubling up, using multiple immune suppressing drugs, and when that is not enough, two of the very high cost biologic immune suppressing drugs. But every time you add to the immune suppression drugs that you are taking, the risk of side effects increase sharply.

We do the same thing for other common medical diseases that are chronic and progressive in nature, like high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental health problems. Over time, the disease progresses and higher doses of medication and/or additional medications are needed. This is the nature of chronic disease. Remember, all chronic disease begins at the cellular level when your body’s normal chemistry no longer functions properly.

What happens is that our bodies then make molecules with the wrong shape that do not operate as effectively in our bodies. Damage to our tissues and organs develops slowly, one incorrectly made molecule at a time. If we want to stop disease progression and restore full health, then we must get at the root cause of this broken chemistry in the cells. That means addressing diet quality, smoking status and toxin exposure, physical activity level, sleep quality, and all of the other often overlooked aspects of diet and lifestyle.

What Are Safer Alternatives To Pain Medication?

There are many safer, more natural ways to relieve pain. Pain is solvable, but the most important thing you can do is to address the root of the problem, instead of using a bandaid approach like pills. Medications can be very helpful, lifesaving even, but they do not address years of eating poorly, years of inactivity, years of cigarette smoking, working with chemicals without proper protective equipment, or years of severe psychological stress.

Each of those factors disrupts the proper functioning of the cell. If you do not address the diet and lifestyle factors gone awry, the underlying disease will continue to progress. Higher doses and more medications will eventually be needed.

My answer to the question, “Why should we ask people to do these tough to implement diet and lifestyle changes when we have medications that are so effective?” is this: Patients are willing to make major dietary and lifestyle changes once they understand both the why and the how. This makes it easier for them to actually implement the changes to feed themselves and their families. People ask us all the time for cooking classes, menus, recipes, and shopping lists. They just need help making these changes. The best thing about this treatment is that it’s free, or mostly free. If you want to get rid of chronic pain, as well as the other side effects of autoimmune disease like fatigue and brain fog, then consider starting with your diet.

I have found that taking inexpensive and comparatively small steps using food as medicine is the most effective way to reduce symptoms of nearly every chronic disease that afflicts modern society. It is time that we stop blaming our genes for our poor health, using medication as a crutch so we don’t have to change our lifestyles, and address the 70-95% of the reason why we became ill in the first place.

If chronic pain is keeping you from living a normal life, keep following me and my evolving research as we unveil the science of preventing disease and creating health.

Dr. Terry Wahls

  • Clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, Iowa
  • Clinical Professor/Instructor, Internal Medicine Resident, Univ of Iowa College of Medicine
  • Clinical Researcher/Author: published over 60 peer-reviewed scientific abstracts, posters, and papers.

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Visit her website to know more about her and her amazing story.

This entry was posted in: Blog Entries, Fundamentals of Wellness, Wellness


I'm a 18 year breast cancer survivor, RN, certified functional medicine health coach, graphic designer, wife, mother and grandmother. This blog is my story, and the result of a difficult and complicated struggle to regain my health. I hope by sharing my story and what I've learned, I can help others thrive the way I have been able to. Thanks for visiting.