Fish Oils: A Viable Alternative

By Dr. Peter Abaci

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, commonly referred to as NSAIDS, are the most commonly used family of pain killers by those looking for relief. In fact we consume billions of these tablets each year in the US as either over the counter or prescription pills to fight pain and inflammation. An estimated 30 million Americans use them each day to treat problems like arthritis, back pain, and headaches. Unfortunately, these types of medications don’t come without some risk and side effects, and can’t be used by everybody. According to the American Gastroenterological Association, over 100,000 Americans are hospitalized each year from complications related to NSAIDS and over 16,000 die annually. Common generic and over the counter names include ibuprofen, naproxen, and ketoprofen.

Some of the most common risks associated with NSAIDS include:

  • Gastrointestinal irritation of the mucosa which can lead to bleeding ulcers
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney damage
  • Problems with heart function
  • Fluid retention
  • Allergic reactions and rashes

Patients may not be able to take NSAIDS if they have any of the following potential problems:

  • Peptic ulcer disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Angina or congestive heart failure
  • Reflux
  • Are using blood thinners
  • Have reduced kidney function
  • Are pregnant
  • Have more than two alcoholic drinks per day

As a result, many folks with pain problems are either not able to take NSAIDS or they want to prevent developing the side effects, so I commonly get asked by my patients to make recommendations for alternatives. One alternative to consider may be fish oil. Fish oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids which are potent anti-inflammatory agents. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered beneficial when it comes to preventing chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, and they also seem to help reduce inflammation associated with inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and even menstrual cramps. Hence, many folks who aren’t able to take NSAIDS due to other pre-existing chronic diseases may find omega-3 fatty acids to be an option to consider. In fact, some studies have found fish oil supplements to be effective in reducing pain from osteoarthritis and one way of reducing or eliminating the need to take NSAIDS.

Omega-3 fatty acids can be ingested naturally in the diet through the consumption of cold water fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, but can also be found in good supply in certain vegetables, fruits, grains, and sea vegetables. Supplementation with fish oils is one option when trying to find an alternative to a daily regimen of NSAIDS. Typical fish oil dosing for medical reasons is usually in the range of 3-9 grams per day. Two key omega-3 fatty acids to look for are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Studies done on fish oils usually use 2-3 grams of EPA and 1-2.5 grams of DHA per day.

Based on current studies, fish oils may be a reasonable alternative for many to traditional NSAIDS for the treatment of pain and inflammation. Certainly, consult with your doctor before starting any new therapy, and if you decide to try supplements, make sure you go with a well-regarded brand.



Image courtesy of Praisaeng /

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