Chronic Pain, Nutrition

Coffee: a great tool for dealing with chronic pain


Coffee is probably my favorite substance on earth.  It makes me feel amazing, helps me wake up on a morning when I haven’t had enough sleep, and even takes away some of my pain.

For a long time I felt a little bit guilty about drinking it because there is so much written about the evils of coffee within the world of alternative health.  People blame it for triggering anxiety, for worsening pain, and for causing digestive problems and insomnia.  The way some writers phrase it, abstaining from coffee is almost like a measure of one’s moral fiber.  If you really want to get better, you have to stop drinking coffee.

I once did a trial period of weaning myself off of coffee/caffeine and then went a few weeks without drinking it to see if I had any less trouble sleeping at night.  I didn’t, and I missed the productivity boost it gave me during the day.  When I drink coffee, it’s not as if my pain suddenly disappears.  But the caffeine seems to give me a rush of optimism and energy that temporarily relegates the pain to the back of my mind and makes it easier to get things done in spite of it.


Like so many claims floating around the alternative medicine world, I have come to consider the anti-coffee chorus to be as much of a fad as anything else.  True, there are some people who don’t react well to caffeine, but it’s not necessary for so many alternative health practitioners/writers/self-promoters to be putting articles on the Internet claiming that everyone needs to stop drinking coffee.

The fact of the matter is that scientific studies have shown that drinking coffee has several health benefits.  I’m going to outline what I’ve learned about some of those benefits here.

Coffee as a pain-reducer

When I read that scientific studies were finding coffee reduced people’s levels of pain, I wasn’t surprised.  I love working out within a few hours of my morning coffee.  Here is some of the evidence thus far:

  • A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that runners who first ingested caffeine were able to complete a 1500-meter run more quickly than runners who’d ingested the placebo.  The caffeinated runners also had higher readings for V02 max, an indicator of the body’s ability to transport oxygen in the bloodstream.
  • Another study at the University of Illinois compared the pain-relieving effects of caffeine among male cyclists.  Not only did they find that caffeine reduced the cyclists’ perception of pain, but they also found it appeared to reduce pain equally among those who were regular coffee drinkers and those who were not.  This shows that people who drink coffee regularly do not need to worry about building a tolerance and needing to drink more coffee to get the same pain-relieving effects.
  • A study conducted in Norway found that coffee could reduce the back and neck pain among office workers who worked at computers all day.

This is not to say that coffee is some kind of magical painkiller, and there are definitely risks to having too much.  Once in a very long while I get heart palpitations if I accidentally have too much caffeine, and the idea of combining exercise and heart palpitations doesn’t sound great to me.  But if you always make your coffee the same way or buy it at the same place, drink it slowly, and stick to having one cup over the course of a few hours, you should be fine.  Everything in moderation– exercise in moderation, preceded by coffee in moderation.

Coffee has a ton of antioxidants

Antioxidants are amazing substances found in food that help protect your body’s cells from cancer-causing agents called free radicals.  Multiple studies have shown that coffee is high in antioxidants.

  • A 2005 study at the University of Scranton in Pennslyvania showed that coffee has one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants out of all of the foods in the “standard” American diet.  Granted, this is probably in part a measure of how terrible the standard American diet actually is, but I’ll take it.
  • Although most studies focus on other antioxidants, there is some evidence to suggest that caffeine itself can act as an antioxidant, too.

If you’re like me, you probably could be better about including fruits and vegetables in your diet.  As the author of the Scranton study points out, fruits and vegetables are still better than coffee from an “overall nutritional point of view” because of their vitamins, minerals and fiber.  But still, it’s nice to know that on the days when eating well doesn’t end up happening, coffee is there to pick up some of the slack.

Coffee may reduce your risk of developing many different health problems

At this point, most of these claims are still in the research stages, but it all sounds promising.  I’m looking forward to reading more on the following topics as more studies are done:

  • It may also reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, although the major study that was done showed you needed to have three cups of coffee to get the most benefit.  I’m personally not sure I can handle that much, but I’m sure a some coffee is better than nothing.

Again, most of these studies are in the preliminary stages, but when you look at all of them in total, I think it’s pretty clear that something awesome is going on here.  Assuming you react well to caffeine, it can be a great tool to help you get to the gym on a day when you’re not feeling great but know you should go.  I’m not an advocate of forcing yourself to work out, but after having a cup of coffee you might find you actually want to.

If you still don’t like coffee, I understand.  I’m not going to tell you you have to drink it.  But I will tell you that you’re missing out. :)


9 thoughts on “Coffee: a great tool for dealing with chronic pain”

  1. I came across a study that found drinking up to 6 CUPS a day reduced your risk of dying from ~anything~! I haven’t noticed if it reduces my pain because I take all of my pain meds with my morning coffee, but it definitely improves my mood. I have ADD, though, so that could explain why it does my body right. I feel like it actually helps me sleep. I have a cup right before bed to wind down. I can’t live without coffee. I tried it and it sucked.

  2. Holy crap I totally agree, and have never heard anyone else mention coffee as a pain-reliever, although it totally does. Well, as you say it kind of boosts your mood (endorphins involved I suppose) and so relegates pain to the back burner for a hour or so. Had an inkling about coffee and dopamine and found this:
    I also find tramadol very successful in this way, at least for the first few months of taking it, until your body gets used to it. It used to kill the fibro-pain for me totally, and give me a lovely energy boost too. Not so much now, although lately I have found magnesium semi-successful in pain relief.

    1. Haha what an amazing article! My favorite quote was, “Hidden within that hot black silken elixir is a chemical that has taken over your brain by mimicking the actions of cocaine and marijuana.” I’m not entirely sure what the author meant by this, but now I need to know more. (So much for this being a blog for me to show to potential future employers…).

      And yes, I’ve also taken tramadol at times when my pain has gotten bad. It’s definitely an amazing drug… until your body gets used to it, as you said. But it’s still a great option to have when you need it.

  3. I don’t drink coffee but it does help with pain. Almost all pain medications have some caffeine in it. Check out the bottles of Excedrin and other meds. Without coffee people complain of headaches. That’s why coffee helps ward off headaches…it’s the caffeine that helps with pain. I’m sure the other antioxidants help as well … but I believe there is new research on benefits of drinking coffee. I’ve never been interested in coffee, but I do like green tea and that has caffeine so I’m hoping it has the same benefits! Thanks for sharing this. Happy New Year! Take care and stay safe, Edie

    1. I’ve heard green tea is supposed to be really good for you. I agree that you are likely to get many of the same benefits from green tea as you would from coffee, since many of those benefits stem from consuming caffeine. I believe green tea also has a lot of antioxidants; just not the same ones as in coffee.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Happy New Year to you, too!

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