Our joints are often an afterthought, until they’re not. Joints form the connections between our bones, and we have more than 350 of them working as shock absorbers to help us move without pain and stiffness. People who suffer from joint pain and arthritis know that it can be life changing and debilitating to have chronic aches in and around their joints. But while medications can help, many people don’t know that food and lifestyle can also have a major impact on your joint pain and arthritis.
Arthritis is not a single disease, but rather an informal way of talking about joint pain and joint diseases. New numbers reported by the Arthritis Foundation estimate that more than 92 million U.S. adults (nearly 47%) have doctor-diagnosed arthritis or report arthritis symptoms, making it the leading cause of disability in America. Below are the most frequent types of joint pain and arthritis.
- Osteoarthritis: The most common type of arthritis, marked by wear-and-tear of joint cartilage. The wearing down of cartilage can occur over many years, or more quickly due to injury or infection.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: An autoimmune condition where the body’s immunity attacks the lining of the joint capsule, making it inflamed and swollen, and which can destroy cartilage and bone over time.
- Psoriatic arthritis: Joint pain and stiffness that develops in some people who have psoriasis, a red, patchy skin condition.
- Gout: Pain, stiffness, and inflammation around joints, similar to rheumatoid arthritis, but the cause is buildup of uric acid in the blood. Can occur anywhere in the body, but often affects lower extremities, like big toe joints.
- Pseudogout: Similar to gout, but caused by buildup of calcium pyrophosphate crystals in the blood, and is most likely to affect the knee, wrist, or large knuckles of the hand. Often the acute pain of a pseudogout flare up is less severe than gout, but can last much longer.
- Lupus: An autoimmune condition that results in inflammation of body tissue and often causes joint pain.
Despite it being so prevalent, arthritis and other joint pain is not well understood. What specialists do know is that arthritis can affect anyone of any age, ethnicity or body type. Some common risk factors, however, include older age, being overweight or obese, family history, smoking, having a demanding physical job, and having previous joint-related injuries or infections. More women than men are diagnosed with joint pain, except in the case of gout. Inflammation and pain is often managed by medication and physical therapy, though there are foods that are believed to help prevent or ease flare ups.
Foods to help control joint pain
Polyphenols are a potent type of antioxidant that come from a range of plant-based foods. In the body, polyphenols work to reduce inflammation, which can help improve all joint-pain conditions. To get a lot of polyphenols, eat more berries (especially blackberries and blueberries), other fruits (especially black currants, plums and tart cherry juice), vegetables (especially artichokes, broccoli and spinach), nuts (especially hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts) and beans of all types.
Foods high in EPA and DHA
These two potent omega-3 fatty acids have a positive effect on joints by reducing the inflammation that causes pain. Best improvements were seen in studies where participants ate two or more 3-ounce portions of EPA- and DHA-rich foods per week, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout and anchovies.
Aromatics and spices
Studies show that people who frequently eat garlic and/or ginger have a reduced risk of osteoarthritis and less joint pain after a diagnosis. Both foods are powerful anti-inflammatory foods and may even enhance immunity. Also, strong-smelling dried herbs and spices, such as peppermint, cloves and star anise are incredibly powerful in terms of antioxidant and mineral compounds that can reduce inflammation.
Rich in polyphenols, green tea can be a great choice for joint pain sufferers. Green tea contains a compound called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (or EGCG) that can reduce free radical formation. Some studies show that adding dairy milk or sugar to green tea can reduce antioxidants and increase inflammation, so opt to drink it straight up.
Choosing olive oil for cooking and seasoning can be a good choice for people with arthritis since it contains beneficial fatty acids, especially oleic acid, which has been shown to reduce markers of inflammation. Olive oil also is a great source of an antioxidant called oleocanthal, which can be as powerful as taking an anti-inflammatory medication.
Foods to reduce when you have joint pain
Drinking alcohol increases inflammation in the body, and chronic alcohol use is associated with higher risk of arthritic diseases. Alcohol also has been connected to longer and more intense gout flare ups.
High sugar foods
Research has connected high sugar intakes to increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis, as well as worsened pain in people already diagnosed with arthritis. Desserts, baked goods, sweetened beverages, candy and packaged snacks are high in added sugar. Conventional condiments and sauces, frozen meals, sweetened canned fruit, cereal and flavored yogurt are less obvious sources of added sugar.
Vegetable oils (like vegetable blends, soybean oil and corn oil) and seed oils (like cottonseed, sunflower seed and sesame oil) plus peanut oil, palm oil and rice bran oil have a high ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, which has been linked to chronic inflammation. These oils are cheap and chemically extracted, appearing in many highly processed foods.
Everyone should reduce or eliminate trans fats for overall health, and this is especially true for people with arthritis and joint pain, since trans fatty acids have been linked to inflammation, especially in people with excess body fat. Artificial trans fats have been banned by the FDA, but despite this, foods that contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can list 0 grams trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label. While this amount is small, it can add up quickly. Trans fats exist mostly in packaged baked goods, some margarine and vegetable shortenings, some microwave popcorns, fried fast food, non-dairy creamers and refrigerated doughs and biscuits. If a product contains “partially hydrogenated oil” that’s a good indication it has trans fats.
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) in processed meats like sausages and hot dogs, deli meats and blackened burnt meat are known to cause inflammation, and may be especially triggering for joint pain flare ups
Supplements that can help with joint pain
Additional support from certain supplements could help reduce joint pain. Always consult your doctor before starting a new supplement.
This natural component of cartilage could slow down cartilage loss and ease stiffness and swelling. It is often taken in combination with chondroitin.
This natural component of connective tissue can increase collagen and water retention in joints and prevent cartilage loss.
EPA and DHA – two potent omega-3 fatty acids – can help reduce inflammation, especially for those who don’t regularly eat two servings or more of fatty fish per week.
S-adenosyl-L-methionine (or SAMe) is produced from an amino acid called methionine. It can increase cartilage production and lessen symptoms of osteoarthritis.
Can be administered as an injectable but also taken as an oral supplement. Some studies show hyaluronic acid can relieve pain in people with osteoarthritis.
Certain herbal supplements
Turmeric, boswellia and devil’s claw are plant-based compounds that have been connected to lowered inflammation and reduced symptoms in people with joint pain.
Have joint pain? Do this first.
If you smoke tobacco or drink alcohol, working to give up these habits can be one of the most impactful things you do to relieve chronic joint pain. If you are overweight, losing weight can help reduce stress on joints and prevent further damage. If you aren’t overweight and don’t regularly smoke or drink, the next best thing to do is to start a low-impact exercise routine and eat more anti-inflammatory foods (listed above).
What else to know about joint pain
For people with chronic joint pain, there are several things that can make symptoms better or worse. Consider the above recommended dietary approaches with the following in mind.
NSAIDs, steroids and opioids are commonly prescribed to mitigate joint pain. Medication can be extremely helpful at relieving pain, but medication plans should be individualized and can often come with unwanted side effects. NSAIDs taken in high doses over long periods of time can create gastrointestinal issues. Long-term steroid use has been linked to depressive episodes and can be hard on the liver and kidneys. Opioids are highly addictive, but are prescribed in severe cases of pain where NSAIDs can’t be used, making arthritis the most common chronic condition among opioid users in the U.S. Over-the-counter pain relievers and topical creams may be recommended and can be helpful to those with less severe joint pain.
For people who don’t find relief from oral or topical medication, injections are an option. Injections of steroids or hyaluronan every several months can be an effective treatment, but could also lead to overuse of the joint, damaging it further.
Though the discomfort and fatigue associated with joint pain may not make you want to exercise, getting into a regular and daily movement pattern can improve quality of life. Working with an experienced trainer can increase motivation and help prevent injuries. Start with low-impact activities that are easier on joints, such as walking, yoga or swimming, and add in aerobic or cardio exercises a few times a week.
Hot and cold treatment
A warm shower in the morning can relieve stiffness and flare ups that tend to plague people with rheumatoid arthritis. Cold compresses can provide relief from redness and swelling in large joints, like knees and ankles.
Acupuncture and massage
Massage or acupuncture can provide immediate pain relief, though likely won’t reduce pain in the long term.
Environmental toxin exposure and smoking
Smoking tobacco or long-term exposure to other toxins like recreational drugs, air and water pollutants, crystalline silica, ultraviolet radiation, known carcinogens and neurotoxins (like pesticides) have been associated with the development of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.