Fight Back Pain and Inflammation with Tea: 5 Tips

Steep your way to less back pain with this ancient, inflammation-busting drink loved the world over.

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You probably like ice cream, because most people like ice cream. But the consequences of eating too much ice cream include brain freeze and bellyache. Too much of a good thing can be not so good.

So it goes with inflammation.

Woman drinking tea to ease back painInflammation-fighting compounds in tea may help ease your back pain.

Inflammation is the body’s natural immune response against injury and infection, which is good. But it’s meant to be temporary: Rally around the injury or infection site and protect it, then simmer down when the danger’s done. That’s how it’s supposed to go.

 But when your body is exposed to too many irritants (such as industrial chemicals), or you eat too much inflammation-promoting food like sugar and refined carbohydrates, or if you have an autoimmune disorder, your immune system can go into overdrive. You may develop chronic inflammation, with powerful hormones and chemicals circulating in your body and doing damage to your cells.

One of the possible consequences of too much inflammation? Back pain. In fact, one 2019 study goes so far as to say that the inflammatory response may be inherent in spinal pain. Also, besides standard backaches, there are some chronic conditions that are directly tied to inflammation, such as forms of arthritis like ankylosing spondylitis and rheumatoid arthritis, and transverse myelitis and multiple sclerosis, closely related conditions that both involve inflammation of the central nervous system.

In recent years, people have touted the anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving properties of drinking certain teas. But is there truth to it? Could sipping a cup of tea really help your back pain? Here’s what our experts say.

1. Some Teas Do Have Anti-Inflammatory Properties

David Kiefer, MD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Wisconsin, explains that some of the compounds in tea are anti-inflammatory.

“These compounds are a type of tannin called polyphenols and act to dampen the chemicals in the body responsible for pain and inflammation,” he says.

Suzanne M. Manzi, MD, board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation, pain medicine, and electrodiagnostic medicine and Physician Owner of Performance Pain & Sports Medicine, agrees. She says, “Yes, there are some varieties of teas that contain anti-inflammatory properties.”

2. Certain Teas Bring Down Inflammation More Than Others

Some specific teas carry more polyphenols than others, which can better decrease inflammation. For example, green tea is usually higher in polyphenols than black tea, according to Dr. Kiefer. It’s a concept that’s been studied in recent years, like one 2016 study that centered on people with rheumatoid arthritis—over six months, experts observed “significant improvement” when it came to the symptoms of the green-tea drinkers.

“Green tea probably works best as part of an anti-inflammatory lifestyle and associated nutritional changes that can help the body combat inflammation,” Dr. Kiefer says.

Other teas that researchers believe reduce inflammation include turmeric, holy basil, and ginger.

3. Aim for Three Cups a Day

Dr. Kiefer says, “The exact dose depends on the quality of the tea and its preparation, but some sources mention that about three cups per day is beneficial for people with rheumatoid arthritis.”

Does caffeine make you jumpy? If you’d like to drink green tea or another anti-inflammatory tea, and it has caffeine, you’ll be happy to know that decaffeinated versions still have anti-inflammatory properties.

4. It Works Best When Combined with Other Treatments

If you’re experiencing back pain or you’re looking to combat a specific condition, and you’re only drinking tea to address it, you likely won’t see miraculous results. Dr. Kiefer says that in order to relieve pain and decrease inflammation, tea, especially green tea, should be ingested regularly for weeks, if not months, which can be tough if you’re experiencing pain every day. Also, he says that it “may only provide a small amount of relief.”

That’s why it’s best to tackle back pain from a variety of angles. Dr. Manzi says, “I utilize injections, modalities such as bracing and TENS units, as well as neuromodulation and other minimally invasive pain-relieving procedures to treat the pain. I also educate my patients on anti-inflammatory diets.”

Dr. Kiefer says that in addition to ibuprofen and other NSAIDs, which will act more quickly than simply drinking tea, there are many other methods to turn to, including physical therapy, acupuncture, mind-body approaches like mindfulness meditation, yoga, and dietary supplements.  

5. It’s Not for Every Pain

While some back conditions may benefit from regular tea drinking, others won’t. Dr. Manzi says, “If there is a structural problem or a fracture, then drinking tea may not likely cure back pain with its mild anti-inflammatory properties.”

Dr. Kiefer emphasizes that it’s very important that anyone with back pain be evaluated by a healthcare provider, and echoes Dr. Manzi’s opinion. He says, “There are some types of back pain that require more involved treatments, even immediate treatments, and those cases are not appropriate for treatment with tea.”

Should You Drink Tea for Back Pain?

Unless you take a medication that directly interacts with tea (for example, some blood thinners interact with green tea), it’s a relatively safe and innocuous element of treating a variety of back pain conditions. Drinking anti-inflammatory tea, even if it doesn’t lessen your pain, does carry other benefits. For example, studies suggest that green tea has mild anticancer and antidiabetic properties, and it can help maintain a healthy weight.

Dr. Manzi summarizes the idea of tea as a pain-reliever, saying, “I always tell my patients that we are going to try the least harmful, minimally invasive option to treat the pain as the first line of therapy. If the tea is helpful in reducing pain, it may be worth trying. However, if there is truly a problem, people should seek out a professional opinion regarding the pain. Pain is the body’s way to alert us that something needs to be addressed.”

Updated on: 07/14/21
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