Stiff or painful joints often get ignored when talking about our health woes—we get accustomed to constantly living with an achy back or sore knees. When you’re at the doctor, more serious issues like blood pressure and cholesterol levels—the stuff that has more of a direct impact on your lifespan—tends to take center stage. Joint pain isn’t something to scoff at, though. If joint problems spiral out of control, it can have serious impacts on your quality of life.
That’s why so many people turn to natural remedies and supplements to ease their pain. Before trying out one of these products yourself, it’s important to research what’s available and what it might do for you. First, find out why your joints are aching, and then use this helpful guide to figure out which supplements might be best for you.
Where joint pain comes from
Before you start investigating different joint health supplements, it’s helpful to gain a better understanding of your joints and how they function.
In anatomy, a joint is the connection between two of your body’s bones. These are the points where you bend and manipulate your limbs, like the hips, elbows, knees, shoulders, and even the neck.
The space between bones is filled with smooth tissue called cartilage and lubricating synovial fluid. Cartilage is a sort of cushy pillow that protects your bones from impact and keeps bones from rubbing together. Over time, cartilage can wear down, resulting in painful bone-on-bone contact. If left unaddressed, that pain will only get worse, and possibly lead to joint damage, arthritis, and mobility issues.
That’s why, as soon as you notice joint pain, it’s important to talk to your doctor, and then make a few lifestyle changes to prevent further injury. This is where joint health supplements come in, too.
Types of joint supplements
There are plenty of different types of all natural supplements out there that can help with joint pain. Some help with the cartilage and lubrication of joints, some decrease inflammation and pain, and still others help with strengthening joints to prevent joint pain from becoming an issue. Here are a few that are scientifically proven to help with joint pain and injury.
Step into the “joint health” aisle at the drugstore, and the first supplement you’ll probably see is glucosamine. Glucosamine is an amino acid made naturally by the body and involved in the creation of cartilage. Doctors aren’t exactly sure why, but supplementing with glucosamine seems to stimulate the growth of new cartilage and strengthen existing cartilage—both of which can improve overall joint strength.
There are many different glucosamine supplements on the market. The most common is derived from shellfish, but there are also vegan options. Glucosamine sulfate—a sub-category of glucosamine—is the only glucosamine derivative with strong scientific evidence backing up its claims. Lab studies have shown that this particular compound can help with arthritis-related pain and stiffness. Anecdotal evidence is even stronger, and users of glucosamine sulfate regularly report tremendous changes in their joints, including less pain and more flexibility.
These are the three main types of glucosamine that you might see at the store:
- Glucosamine Sulfate
- Glucosamine Hydrocholoride (HCL)
- N-Acetyl Glucosamine (NAG)
Just keep in mind that glucosamine sulfate is the only type with strong research to back up its claims.
Often paired with glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate can suppress inflammatory pathways in the body, which can actually slow down or prevent further joint damage. Chondroitin seems to be particularly helpful in easing the pain of osteoarthritis, which is characterized by the breakdown and eventual loss of cartilage between joints. While there are a few studies that validate these claims, but they studied the effects of chondroitin paired with glucosamine. The results of research using chondroitin to treat joint pain are mixed.
Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) works differently than the other supplements on this list—MSM delivers sulfur to the body. Yep, the stinky stuff that’s used on matches actually strengthens the structure of connective tissue bonds, strengthening the tissues that make up the joint.
Taking an MSM supplement may help with osteoarthritis and joint pain as well as improve the healing times of sports injuries.
Omega-3 or fish oil
Fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids block inflammatory compounds created by the body like cytokines and prostaglandins. A 2010 study found that fish oil significantly decreased joint tenderness and stiffness in those with rheumatoid arthritis, and patients were able to reduce or eliminate use of OTC medications like Advil and Tylenol.
Though not a traditional supplement, turmeric could help with joint pain. The golden-hued spice from India is packed with curcumin—an anti-inflammatory compound that’s been proven to decrease recovery time from injuries, helps tissue regenerate, and to be as powerful at relieving inflammation as over-the-counter pain killers.
Choosing your joint health supplement
Because of the prevalence of joint problems and the research that backs the use of joint supplements, these are among the most common products on the market today. But how do you go about finding the right one in a sea of choices?
- Look at ingredients. You’re looking for glucosamine with chondroitin as the key ingredients. Pay attention to the content levels and compare them to other options to see how much of a value you’re really getting.
- Examine the dosage. Pay attention to how many pills or capsules you’ll need to take per day. For example, one supplement may require that you take two tablets a day, while another requires four. This means that certain options aren’t as worthwhile as you might think—a bottle with 90 capsules may be just as good as one with 180 if each pill has more active ingredients in it.
- Double-check the source. If you’re on a strict vegan diet or are allergic to shellfish, check the source of the glucosamine. Even though research has shown that glucosamine from shellfish is usually safe for those with an allergy, if you’re concerned, there are plenty of options derived from other sources.
- Pay attention to additional ingredients. Some formulas include other compounds to further strengthen joints. Though it varies from product to product, these combinations could give you better results for your money.
- Do your research. If you’re in doubt, read up on some past reviews and statements from those who have used the product before. This could tell you a lot about whether or not a particular supplement is worth using.
Getting more from joint health supplements
It’s important to understand that a joint health supplement isn’t a magic bullet. In other words, you’re not going to be able to just take it and relax while your knee or elbow instantly heals. Instead, these supplements should be used in conjunction with other lifestyle changes to see the greatest improvement.
Consider making some of these changes to reduce joint pain, in addition to supplements.
- Lose weight. If you’ve heard people say that losing weight can help with virtually every health problem, it really is true. The more you weigh, the more pressure gets placed on your knees and hips. That means more stress for your joints—a recent study found that for every pound you gain, four times as much stress is placed on the knees. Slimming down will not only make you feel better overall, but relieve over-burdened joints.
- Exercise the right way. Losing weight involves exercise, but it’s important to understand that some exercises are better than others, particularly for those with joint pain. Instead of running, which impacts the knees heavily, try to take up something lower impact, like bicycling or swimming. These activities will keep you healthy, but won’t hurt your joints as much.
- Stay active. This doesn’t mean hitting the gym—it just means staying mobile. Studies have found that less movement during the day translates to additional stiffness in the joints. In other words, getting up and moving around as much as possible to help preserve your range of motion.
- Maintain good posture. Standing or sitting improperly can place extra strain on your shoulders, neck, back, hips, and knees. Minding your posture as you sit and stand can yield major benefits. Check out basic tips here plus the one move that will really help you improve your posture.
- Add more calcium to your diet. Focus on adding calcium-rich foods to your meals. Milk, broccoli, kale, and cheeses can all help improve bone and joint health.
- Know when to rest. It’s important to stay active and work out regularly, but you also need to give your joints a break from time to time. From ice packs to hot soaks to just relaxing on the sofa, all kinds of rest can help immensely.
- Try eating more anti-inflammatory foods. Arthritis and joint pain is essentially chronic inflammation—and anything you can do to reduce it will probably help with your symptoms! Check out this article for how to start an eating an anti-inflammatory diet; it’s way easier than you think!
The tips above will help you get more from any joint health supplements you might want to try. Choosing the right ones is important, and so is using them correctly, but don’t forget the other aspects of your health regimen.
Illustration by Karley Koenig
Photo credit: Alicia Cho