Ginger has been used as a folk remedy for centuries for a variety of ills, including colds and upset stomachs, according to Patrick O'Connor, the UGA professor who led the research project.
Ginger had been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects in lab rats, and other researchers have demonstrated that the root can relieve some kinds of chronic pain, such as that caused by osteoarthritis.
But until now, researchers had not investigated whether ginger could relieve the kind of pain strenuous exercise can cause, said O'Connor, a professor in the UGA College of Education's kinesiology department.
The researchers had volunteers take either raw ginger, heat-treated ginger or a placebo for 11 days. On the eighth day, they asked the volunteers to do a strenuous exercise with a heavy weight, placing stress on the volunteers' elbow flexor muscles.
Then they assessed the volunteers' pain and took related measures, such as how much muscle inflammation the volunteers had and levels of a biochemical involved in pain.
Ginger reduced pain by 25 percent compared to the placebo, the researchers found.
Some previous studies suggested heat-treated ginger might work better to relieve pain, but the UGA researchers did not see any heat effect, O'Connor said.
Raw ginger worked just as well as heat-treated ginger.
Ginger may work even better than aspirin for post-exercise muscle pain. But you have to take ginger over the course of days for it to work. Unlike aspirin, you can't just pop a couple of ginger capsules and wait an hour, however.
Salina Nelson, manager of Remedy, an Athens herbal pharmacy, was not surprised at what the researchers found.
Both as a food spice and an herbal dietary supplement, ginger has long been known to reduce nausea, to act as an anti-inflammatory agent and for other medicinal qualities, she said.
"It has a thousand and one uses," Nelson said. "I've seen customers benefit greatly from it."
Most drugstores and herbal shops carry ginger root, usually in 500 milligram (half-gram) capsules, though concentrated forms also are available, she said. Typically, a user will take one or two capsules a day, she said.
Research also has shown that one gram a day of ginger is an effective dose to relieve nausea in pregnant women, O'Connor said.
He hopes to continue the ginger research with a second phase to find out whether taking one gram of ginger a day - half the amount in the UGA researchers' study - will work to reduce exercise pain.
Since the UGA researchers released their research results last week, newspapers as far away as India have published articles about the ginger-pain relief connection.
"Spices are especially popularly in India and China, more so than in the United States, so it's not too surprising (to see coverage in India)," said O'Connor, who conducted the research with Chris Black, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, UGA doctoral student Matt Herring and David Hurley, an associate professor of population health in UGA's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Their work, sponsored by the McCormick Science Institute, will be published in the September issue of The Journal of Pain.