Does Coffee Reduce Your Pain?

By Steve Weakley

Saturday, September 29th is National Coffee Day, so drink up! A new study shows that caffeine can be an effective pain reliever.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) reported in the journal Psychopharmacology that regularly consuming caffeine can make a noticeable difference in your ability to withstand pain.  The study involved 62 healthy men and women, who shared with researchers their caffeine consumption from coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks and chocolate over seven days.

The group averaged 170 milligrams of caffeine a day, about the same as two cups of coffee.  Fifteen percent of the group consumed more than 400 milligrams a day and one participant drank the equivalent of 6.5 cups of coffee daily.

After a week, the volunteers were subjected to painful heat and pressure tests in a laboratory. Researchers discovered that people who regularly consumed caffeine significantly reduced their sensitivity to pain. The more caffeine they consumed, the lower their sensitivity.

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“Diet can actually be a useful intervention for decreasing pain sensitivity,” said lead author, Burel Goodin, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at UAB. “It’s not just caffeine. A study has shown, for example, that a plant-based diet can actually help increase pain tolerance.”

Researchers say caffeine reduces pain by blocking receptors in the brain called adenosines, which enhances the effect of dopamine chemicals associated with pain relief.  

Caffeine has been added to over-the-counter pain relievers like Excedrin for years, and has been shown to increase their effectiveness by as much as 40 percent.  South Korean researchers have also added caffeine to the opioid medication of patients with advanced cancer and found that it decreased their pain and improved alertness.

Other research has corroborated the effectiveness of caffeine alone as a pain reliever.  A University of Georgia study revealed that two cups of coffee can reduce post workout pain by nearly half.  And a study at the University of Pittsburgh found that a single 200mg tablet of caffeine was effective in treating muscle pain.

Excessive caffeine consumption can have serious side effects, but the Mayo Clinic says 400mg per day is a safe dosage (about 4 cups of coffee). A few cups could be a useful addition to your pain treatment regimen.