Tip: The Pill That Makes Damaged Muscles Bigger

This plant chemical takes away soreness, but it turns out it also makes injured and bruised muscles heal faster.

Let's say you injured yourself. Maybe your thigh collided with the Frankensteinian head of some gi-normous Australian rugby player during a scrum from hell, or you just wanged your shoulder on the door jamb while racing back from the kitchen with a bag of Doritos to catch the next big reveal on "The Masked Singer."

Either way, your first impulse was probably to get some ice and pop some Aleve. The ice, at least for the first 48 hours, would go a long way in reducing initial swelling while the Aleve would presumably take the edge off the pain so that you wouldn't pray for the sweet release of death.

Beyond that, you probably wouldn't do anything further to facilitate healing. You'd just ride it out, marveling at the breathtaking diversity of purples, yellows, and reds the bruise took and gingerly testing it out every few days until performing the desired activity no longer made you wince.

That kind of so-called treatment may be a thing of the past, though. Scientists, long aware that curcumin can mitigate the muscle damage caused by exercise or lifting in general, have recently found that the versatile polyphenol can help with muscle contusions, too, making the muscle heal faster and even come back bigger.

Taiwanese scientists got a bunch of mice and divided them into four groups. One group was, of course, the control group. They got off easy. The rest of them were dealt contusion injuries. The scientists dropped a 50-gram weight onto the left gastrocnemius muscles of each non-control mouse from a height of a little less than two feet (for real!).

The impact wasn't enough to break any bones, but it was probably enough to make them refrain from teasing their cat nemeses, running up clocks, pilfering cheese, or any of the other fun things mice are purported to do.

The scientists then split these contused mice into three additional groups:

  1. A group that just had to heal naturally.
  2. A group that received diclofenac, a common nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, once a day for 7 days.
  3. A group that received curcumin once a day for 7 days.
  • The muscle mass of the naturally-healing group decreased by 11.1% compared with the control group, but the muscle mass of the curcumin group increased by 18.8%.
  • Creatine kinase levels (an indicator of muscle damage) were significantly reduced in the curcumin group.
  • The production of neutrophils and macrophages, along with inflammation itself, was reduced in the curcumin group.
  • The curcumin group improved the "functional recovery of the gait" in the injured mice.
  • Curcumin facilitated muscle satellite cell regeneration.

Several previous studies have shown that curcumin works great in treating post-workout soreness. For instance, McFarlin, et al. reported that the compound cuts down on the production of CK, TNF-alpha, and IL-8 (three notorious markers of muscle damage) after eccentric exercise.

Likewise, Drobnic, et al. reported that taking curcumin significantly reduced pain, along with various markers of inflammation, in the right and left anterior thighs of athletes after exercise. And then we have Delecroix, et al. They reported that curcumin offset some of the physiological markers of post-workout inflammation in rugby players.

The current Taiwanese study, however, found that curcumin also works well in ameliorating the damage from a non-workout related injury, i.e., getting plopped in the thigh by a dropped weight.

While the damage from intense exercise and the damage from non workout-related injury (e.g., bruises) differ in severity and levels of chaos (the damage from workouts is much more "orderly" than damage from an accident), there are plenty of similarities as to how the body reacts to them, and curcumin acts as kind of a project manager in facilitating healing.

It shuts down any chemical reactions that are detrimental to healing while simultaneously doing what it can (i.e., helping instigate satellite cell proliferation) to restore muscle architecture to what it was, or, as proved with the mice, make muscle architecture even better (larger).

Personally, I think every adult man or woman should take curcumin every day but it's fine if you just use it to help heal sore or injured muscles.

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  1. Tsai SW et al. Accelerated Muscle Recovery After In Vivo Curcumin Supplementation. Natural Product Communications. 2020 Jan;15(1).