In light of increasing regulation and concern regarding the use of opioid pain medications, patients are searching for alternative pain management methods. As healthcare providers, we must be aware of these methods and their safety and efficacy to advise patients properly. One popular ancient remedy is copper. The medicinal use of copper dates to nearly 2000 BC and has been noted in the writings of several ancient cultures.1 More recently, American folk medicine purports the use of copper, especially in the form of jewelry and bracelets, to mitigate the pain and swelling of osteoarthritis.
Considering that arthritis affects an estimated 30 million people in the United States alone, with an annual economic burden exceeding $128 billion, safe and effective methods of treatment would be tremendously beneficial.2 Expand the etiology of pain to include all sources, and conservative estimates of the number of people with chronic pain suggest that more than 100 million people in the United States deal with this malady on a daily basis.3 The resulting economic costs are calculated into the billions of dollars annually in lost work time and productivity and medical care costs.
Copper is a metal with an atomic number of 29 on the Periodic Chart of the Elements.4 It is considered a trace element that, even though metallic, is essential to human life. It is a key part of many metabolic processes. Copper deficiency can contribute to conditions such as osteoporosis, impaired neurologic development, and overall immune dysfunction.5 The discussion about the safety and efficacy of copper in the form of bracelets and jewelry is much the same as for other alternative therapies. The “Does it work” question is often answered by testimonials and folklore rather than by scientific study. However, our first question should be “Is it safe.” If the answer to that is affirmative, then we are able to concentrate on what our patient wants and feels is effective. Based on available research, copper would appear to be one of those treatments.
Few human clinical trials evaluating the safety and efficacy of copper for pain are found in the current literature, and most existing trials fail to show efficacy against a placebo control. With that said, the proposed mechanism of action of copper for pain is based on a theory known as trapped electricity.6 This somewhat controversial concept is based on the known electrical impulses involved in all neuromuscular function. An insult that results in the perception of pain causes the production of abnormal or aberrant electrical impulses from the nervous system. These impulses are received and perceived by the central nervous system as pain.7 The theory of trapped electricity purports that pain involves an excessive or hyperproduction of electrical activity that is in excess of that which our bodies can normally disperse, resulting in retained, or trapped, electrical activity. This energy, much like a pinball, continues to bounce back and forth in the system, perpetuating the pain sensation.