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Pain is a common sensation experienced by many people, and it can range from mild discomfort to severe agony. Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin are readily available and can be effective in treating mild to moderate pain. Heat and ice may also be applied to relive or reduce pain and so can soaking in magnesium or Epsom salts.

However, some individuals may experience chronic pain that requires additional relief and want to avoid taking prescribed pain meds. One potential option to consider is caffeine, a naturally occurring stimulant found in a variety of sources such as coffee, tea, energy drinks, and dark chocolate, which has been linked to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer. In addition to this and its well-known effects on one’s energy and endurance, caffeine also has surprising pain-relieving properties and may be a key staple to your pain management treatment plan.

I stumbled upon this discovery to caffeine as a pain reliever personally after finishing an ultra-marathon and continuing to eat one to two packets of Clif black cherry energy blok chews a day, which contains 50 milligrams of caffeine per 2.1-ounce packet. As a non-coffee and non-tea drinker, it was great boost for my morning runs and the perfect lift in the afternoons before an afternoon athletic activity. At the same time, I noticed my longstanding leg and back pain that I had leading up to that race had disappeared post-race and I didn’t know what to contribute as the reason. I had stopped physical therapy and not added any other pain relief treatment. It wasn’t until I stopped taking the energy bloks that the pain soon returned thereafter is when I made the dotted line connection and did some research.   

How Caffeine Relieves Pain

It turns out that caffeine has been shown in studies to have pain-relieving effects by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain. Who knew? Adenosine is a chemical that plays a role in promoting sleep and suppressing arousal, and it is also involved in the regulation of pain. When caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, it can reduce the perception of pain.

All of this was quite a surprise finding for me. As a person and athlete who has had my fair share of injuries that have caused pain over the years, my treating healthcare providers and physical therapists have only suggested pain prescriptions (which I always turned down), physical therapy (a hit-or-miss), and sometimes injections (also a hit-or-miss) but never suggested to add caffeinated foods to my daily diet. This, I had to discover on my own.

Caffeine can also enhance and boost the effects of other pain-relieving medications. A study published in The Journal of Pain found that combining caffeine with acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) resulted in a more significant reduction in pain compared to acetaminophen alone.

“The involvement of caffeine in pain management has gotten minimal attention in the past, but it is getting more attention now,” wrote Sri Harsha Boppana, Michael Peterson, Austin Du, Simhachalam Kutikuppala, and Rodney Gabriel in the published Caffeine: What Is Its Role in Pain Medicine?, a medical article written with the purpose to clarify the role of caffeine as a pain reliever and to stimulate the interest of researchers like myself.

Safe Daily Intake of Caffeine

While caffeine has benefits like improved mental alertness, enhanced physical performance, reduced risk of certain diseases and pain relief, it is essential to consume caffeine in moderation. It is important to follow the recommended daily intake of caffeine based on your age, gender, and individual tolerance, which is usually specified on the packaging.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that most adults can safely consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, which is roughly the amount found in four 8-ounce cups of coffee. Studies have found 100 to 130 milligrams of caffeine added to drugs, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol, is a safe and effective dose. If you are consuming caffeinated beverages to alleviate pain, it is recommended to consult with your healthcare provider regarding appropriate dosage. Additionally, some individuals are sensitive to caffeine or have underlying medical conditions and may need to consume less. I, myself, can only tolerant about 100 to 125 milligrams of caffeine total a day.

Sources of Caffeine

Below is a list of beverages and foods containing varying amounts of caffeine. It’s worth noting that the amount of caffeine can vary widely between different brands and types of food and drinks, and can also depend on factors, such as the brewing method or preparation technique.

  • Coffee drinks: A typical cup of coffee contains around 95 milligrams of caffeine. The caffeine content in coffee can vary depending on the type of coffee bean, brewing method, and serving size. Specialty coffee drinks can contain significantly more caffeine due to added espresso shots or other sources of caffeine.

  • Teas: The caffeine content in tea can vary depending on the type of tea, the brewing method, and the steeping time. Black tea, which is made from fermented tea leaves, contains around 47 milligrams of caffeine per cup versus green tea, made from unfermented tea leaves, contains approximately 29 milligrams.

  • Sodas: Sodas, such as colas and other carbonated drinks, often contain caffeine as a flavoring agent and a stimulant. One of the most popular brands, Coca-Cola, offers regular and diet varieties that contain around 34mg and 46mg of caffeine per 12 ounces serving, respectively. Another well-known brand, Pepsi, offers similar caffeine levels in their regular and diet drinks, with around 38mg and 35mg of caffeine per 12 ounces serving, respectively.

  • Energy drinks and powders: Energy drinks can contain high levels of caffeine, with some brands containing up to 500 milligrams per can. There are many brands on the market, such as Red Bull, CELCIUS®, and Liquid I.V.®. After a bad reaction to Red Bull years ago, I personally stay away from energy drinks and powders.

  • Energy bars: Select energy bars can contain varying amounts of caffeine. Popular brands include Clif Bar Energy + Caffeine and KIND Energy bars have 50 milligrams of caffeine per serving and Better Than Coffee, French Roast and Julian Bakery Paleo Thin Protein Bar, Espresso, each contain 100 milligrams.

  • Energy liquid gels and gel blocks: Energy liquid gels and gel blocks, a popular choice among endurance athletes and runners, contain different amounts of caffeine. One popular brand, GU Energy, offers a “GU Energy Gel” that contains 20mg of caffeine per serving while CLIF offers a “Shot Energy Gel” that contains 50mg of caffeine per serving. Energy gel blocks by Honey Stinger contain around 32mg.

  • Chocolates: The amount of caffeine in dark chocolate varies depending on the type of chocolate and serving size. The darker the chocolate, the higher the caffeine content. Brands such as Lindt Excellence 85%  and Green & Black’s Organic 85% have 23 to 24mg of caffeine per serving. Other brands, such as Hershey’s Special Dark, contain around 20mg.

  • Ice creams, frozen yogurts and dairy drinks: Caffeine in ice creams, frozen yogurts and dairy drinks is more commonly just adding a flavoring agent like chocolate or coffee rather than for its stimulant properties. Brands include Oikos Pro Fuel (10 milligrams per 10 ounces) and Bang! (125 milligrams per scoop).

  • Chewing gum: Caffeine in chewing gums is a relatively new product on the market and is a convenient way to consume caffeine on the go. Caffeine amounts greatly vary in the caffeinated gum brands and includes Awaken gum (12 milligrams), Jolt gum (45 milligrams), and Military Energy Gum (100 milligrams).

The Dangers of Caffeine

There is also a flipside to consuming caffeine and it’s important to be aware of caffeine’s potential negative health consequences. Excessive caffeine consumption can have adverse effects on some people, such as restlessness, increased heart rate, and high blood pressure. It may also not be not suitable for those with certain medical conditions such as acid reflux or anxiety disorders who may need to limit their intake or avoid it altogether.

Caffeine can be addictive and disrupt sleep patterns, leading to chronic sleep deprivation like insomnia and additional health problems. When stopping, it can cause withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Excessive consumption can also have adverse effects on the cardiovascular system, cause dehydration, worsen psychiatric conditions, and lead to anxiety and panic attacks.

Certain sodas and energy drinks contain very high levels of caffeine and other stimulants, which may increase the risk of adverse effects, like rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, and anxiety. I had bad reactions to Diet Mountain Dew (90milligrams per 20 ounces), which gave me exploding headaches, and Red Bull (80 milligrams per 8.46 ounces), which gave me my first and only case of vertigo after developing a habit of drinking it daily. I stopped cold turkey both and never had the migraine-like headaches or vertigo ever again. (Side note, I immediately sought treatment for vertigo from an ENT specialist and was completely healed after receiving the Epley maneuver.)

Key Takeaways on Caffeine

Caffeine can have surprising pain-relieving benefits, but it is essential to consume it in moderation and to consider other factors, such as potential side effects and interactions with other medications or medical conditions.

If you choose to use caffeine to manage your pain, it is recommended that you first consult with your healthcare provider to determine the appropriate dosage and ensure that it does not interfere with any other medications you may be taking.

Below are five key takeaways to adding caffeine to your diet for pain management.

  1. First and foremost, consult with your GP before adding caffeine to your diet to determine if caffeine is ideal to help alleviate your pain.
  2. Determine which caffeinated food or beverages you will be consuming and if it will be in combination with any caffeinated medications.
  3. It’s crucial to always consume caffeine in moderation. Know your intake limits to caffeine, how much to digest, and how often.
  4. If needly, adjust the amount of your caffeine intake and frequency based on your reaction and results.
  5. If you having any adverse reactions to caffeine, contact your GP immediately before completely stopping as your GP may suggest tapering down your caffeine intake to reduce the possibility of withdraws side effects.

By understanding how caffeine works to relieve pain and being mindful of safe intake levels, you can use this popular stimulant to your advantage.

Be Fit. Be Strong. Be Well.