Nothing makes you feel old like achy, creaky joints. Wrinkles? They’re easy enough to write off as laugh lines. Gray hairs? Cover them up with a few highlights. But the first sign of joint pain is enough to make you think—okay, my glory days are behind me.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to do with aging. Seniors aren’t the only ones who experience joint pain—in fact, at least 30 percent of American adults report discomfort in at least one of their joints. This condition is so widespread that we’ve come to expect it, and even resign ourselves to it. But you don’t have to live with creaking hips and stiff knees. Here’s everything you need to know about joint pain, from symptoms to causes to natural remedies to help in the day to day.
What is joint pain?
Joint pain is exactly what it sounds like: discomfort around or coming from any joint in the body. That is, any place where two bones meet—elbows, knees, ankles, wrists, hips, and so on. Joint pain varies quite a bit from mild to severe, and can be caused from a multitude of different ailments or medical conditions.
Symptoms of joint pain
The biggest sign of joint pain is, well, pain. People with this condition report everything from mild discomfort to agony. If you notice any of the following in any joint, you’ll definitely want to keep reading.
- Mild to severe pain
- Inhibited or decreased range of motion
- Change of shape in joint
What causes joint pain?
Joint pain can be caused by many different medical conditions. The list of causes of joint pain includes:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Infections caused by a virus
- Injury, such as fractures or sprains
- Bone infections (osteomyelitis)
- Joint infections (septic arthritis)
- Autoimmune diseases such as lupus
- Chondromalacia patellae
- CPPD arthritis (pseudogout)
- Unusual exertion or overuse
- Muscle strains
- Bone cancer
- Lyme disease
- Food allergies or intolerances
What is arthritis?
Of all the conditions linked to joint pain, arthritis is probably the one that’s most widely discussed—likely it’s also the most common. The word arthritis is really just a catch-all term for any inflammation of the joints, and doctors have diagnosed more than 100 different varieties of it.
The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. While osteoarthritis is triggered by the natural aging process, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. Osteoarthritis affects a whopping 27 million Americans, and another 1.5 million people have been diagnosed by rheumatoid arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s one in five American adults, and nearly half of the people over age 65. Women are also slightly more likely to develop arthritis than men.
Let’s dive a little deeper into these two common illnesses.
Also known as degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis happens to many people as they age. To understand the cause of osteoarthritis, you first need to understand how joints work. Your bones are connected by tendons and ligaments to form joints. A lining of protective cartilage wraps around the end of each bone, cushioning them and stopping them from rubbing together. The human body also produces soft tissues called synovial membranes that produce a liquid inside the joints. Like cartilage, this tissue works as a buffer between the bones.
As we age, natural wear and tear starts to break down the cartilage. The synovial membranes may also harden and stop producing fluid. This leads to the uncomfortable and sometimes painful feeling of bone rubbing on bone—also known as joint pain or osteoarthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, happens when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the synovial membranes, thickening them and causing joints to swell. This leads to pain and inflammation—the latter can damage cartilage over time and change the space between joints.The condition is most common in the hands, feet, wrists, elbows, knees and ankles, and usually affects both joints at once. Patients can lose their mobility in the affected joints, which also often become deformed.
Doctors don’t fully understand what causes the body to mount this attack on the joints, but evidence shows that genetics, environmental factors, and hormonal changes all play a role. Some recent studies have also found intriguing links between the rheumatoid arthritis and the gut microbiome, the collection of beneficial bacteria that live in the gastrointestinal tract. Though scientists are learning more and more about these thousands of microbes, and believe they may be linked closely to the immune system, they don’t yet understand just how the microbiome might affect rheumatoid arthritis.
How do you treat joint pain?
Once your doctor diagnoses you with arthritis or another condition that causes joint pain, he or she might prescribe one of several medications. NSAID pain relievers, also called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents/analgesics (such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen) are some of the most commonly prescribed medications. Long-term use of NSAIDs, however, can cause side effects such as bleeding stomach ulcers and kidney damage.
Joint surgery is also an option for some patients. Often, surgeons will opt for a total joint replacement—hip and knee replacements are fairly common. New procedures to repair joints are also becoming more popular with patients and doctors.
Natural remedies for joint pain
Prescription medications and invasive surgeries aren’t the only ways to treat joint pain from arthritis or other causes. Researchers have identified a few supplements with promising effects on stiff and aching joints.
S-Adenosylmethionine, abbreviated as SAMe, is a naturally occurring compound found in most of the tissues and fluids in the body. Studies have shown that SAMe supplements can reduce joint pain and inflammation, and have the potential to repair cartilage. In fact, researchers have found that taking SAMe can be just as effective as taking NSAID pain relievers for some patients.
The herbal supplement arnica montana has been used for centuries to relieve pain, and modern medical findings back up those claims. According to recent research, arnica gel can be as effective as ibuprofen at relieving osteoarthritis pain and stiffness in the hands and knees.
Both glucosamine and chondroitin are naturally occurring compounds found in cartilage. Though European doctors have prescribed chondroitin for the treatment of arthritis for years, research on the effectiveness of glucosamine and chondroitin together has been somewhat inconclusive. A large study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that glucosamine-chondroitin provided some relief for people with moderate joint pain (though it wasn’t as effective for patients with mild symptoms). As both glucosamine and chondroitin are safe for long-term use, they make good alternatives to prescription drugs.
Omega-3 fatty acids—found in fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds—have anti-inflammatory properties that make them perfectly suited to treating joint pain. Supplementing with omega-3s through fish oil capsules or vegan algae capsules can be an effective treatment for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other joint pain.
Gamma linolenic acid
This omega-6 fatty acid also stops the inflammation that causes discomfort in the joints. However, the results of studies on gamma linolenic acid have been mixed, and researchers still consider this treatment less effective than other omega-3 fatty acids.
Some studies have noted a relationship between vitamin D and rheumatoid arthritis, though researchers don’t yet understand the ins and outs. What they do know is how the vitamin works in the body. When we absorb vitamin D through sunlight or foods, it goes to work in immune cells that produce cytokines, compounds that can either have inflammatory or anti-inflammatory properties. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis typically have higher levels of a type of inflammatory cytokines, and lower levels of vitamin D. Though it’s possible that vitamin D in supplement form could impact rheumatoid arthritis, we need more research to get the whole picture.
Foods that can help relieve joint pain
Though researchers haven’t yet found any “miracle” foods that can cure joint pain, they have discovered a few foods that may help alleviate it. Most of these foods get their pain-fighting power from their anti-inflammatory properties, and fall under what experts call the “anti-inflammatory diet.” If you have achy joints, it might be worth incorporating these foods into your diet to see if you notice a difference in your body.
What makes bone broth so healthy for the joints? Collagen, the structural protein found in animal tissue. When you boil bones for hours to make stock or broth, you extract their collagen. This protein contains two amino acids crucial to rebuilding the connective tissues in our joints. Though collagen hasn’t been extensively studied, some believe eating more of this protein could help people with painful joints feel better.
Fish and other omega-rich foods
Hate taking pills? Get your omega-3 and -6 fatty acids by incorporating more foods containing these healthy fats into your diet.
Food sources of omegas include:
- Fish, such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel
- Pumpkin seeds
- Chia seeds
- Brussels sprouts
Eating tart cherries or drinking cherry juice might be enough to help people with gout and osteoarthritis. One study found that consuming 10 cherries a day protected gout patients from new flare-ups, and cherry juice and extract appear to convey the same benefits. Researchers also found that drinking two 8-ounce servings of cherry juice helped osteoarthritis sufferers feel better and move more easily. This may be due to anthocyanins, the pigments that give cherries their bright color, which have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Red apples and red onions
You don’t have to eat them together, but both red apples and red onions can be very helpful for joint pain from diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. The reason? A flavonoid called quercetin—it’s what gives red apples, onions, and berries their vibrant hue. Quercetin also has numerous anti-inflammatory properties, which some studies suggest can prevent and reduce the reactions that trigger rheumatoid arthritis.
While we’re on the subject of anti-inflammatories, we’ve got to mention turmeric. This bright orange root commonly used in Indian cuisine contains curcumin, one of the best known fighters of inflammation. Studies have shown the compound is especially effective at preventing joint pain. You can cook with turmeric by adding it to just about any savory dish, but you can also supplement with curcumin capsules.
Garlic, onions, and leeks
Your breath might not smell great, but if you eat a diet rich in alliums (like garlic, onions, and leeks), you’re less likely to develop osteoarthritis, according to one British study. And, like many of the other foods on this list, garlic also fights inflammation, a critical factor in reducing joint pain.
Spicy ginger root suppresses inflammatory molecules and even switches off certain inflammatory genes—basically a one-two knockout punch for conditions like arthritis and osteoarthritis. And, since ginger has a wealth of other health benefits, there’s no reason not to enjoy it pickled, candied, or dried.
Lifestyle changes that can reduce joint pain
Of course, it’s not only about nutrition—making a few adjustments to your daily lifestyle may also help reduce joint pain. Regardless of the cause, the following strategies will only benefit your health and the health of your joints.
If you’re carrying more than a few extra pounds, your weight could be aggravating—if not causing—your joint pain. The heavier you are, the more pressure on your joints, and the more wear and tear you put them through. Though it’s easier said than done, losing weight can alleviate the stress on your aching joints and leave you feeling lighter, with less pain.
When it hurts just to bend your knees, going on a long run doesn’t sound very appealing. But hear us out—getting plenty of physical activity each day could drastically improve your symptoms. Exercise can strengthen the muscles around your joints and your bones, which supports the affected areas of your body and over time, lessens the pain. Plus, working out regularly helps keep your body at a healthy weight.
Your doctor can recommend safe options for you—likely low-impact exercises that won’t aggravate the condition any further, like swimming, water aerobics, gentle yoga, tai chi, and walking.
As if the laundry list of side effects weren’t enough, here’s another reason to throw out the cigarettes: smoking might be tied to the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers don’t fully understand why, but smoking can somehow set off a chain reaction of immune system missteps that lead to this autoimmune disorder.
Just remember, it’s best to consult your doctor before trying any new supplements or natural remedies.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho, Paul Delmont
Illustration by Karley Koenig