Got achy joints? Do you creak and crack getting out of bed in the morning or even just out of the chair at work?
I’ve been a sufferer of joint pain for quite a few years. It sucks. Some days, I feel like my body is made of glass. Everything hurts.
But I know what to do to prevent and eliminate that joint pain. If you’re like me, you can eliminate yours and restore a better, pain-free life, too!
There are a myriad of potential causes of joint pain, some serious and life-threatening, some not so much.
The most likely causes are far less sinister and final.
In fact, the most likely causes are well within your control. Completely, in fact.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 25% of all Americans suffer from arthritis. That’s about 75 million people (or more.)
About 15 million people report “severe joint pain,” or pain rated at 7 on a scale of 1to 10, with 1 being no pain at all and 10 being pain at it’s absolute worst possible level. This number likely includes people with severe joint diseases as well as other diseases whose symptoms include joint pain, such as Lupus, Gout and Lyme’s Disease.
More often than not, however, joint pain can be mitigated or even eliminated all together simply by making some changes in diet, activity and stress management. Pretty cool, huh?
Let’s take a look at some of those ways.
Nutrition – I really despise the word “diet.” It is, after all, a 4 letter word. My mom always told me to avoid using 4 letter words, so that’s the one I avoid. (Somehow, several others manage to sneak into my vocabulary from time to time. Okay, a lot.)
Nutrition describes the real situation better, anyway. When we talk about nutrition, we’re discussing the food and drink you actually put in your body, rather than a specific or restricted plan.
Mind you, I have no objection to “diets” if the person undertaking one is aware of all the limitations, side effects and other things they can expect. Fully informed and fully transparent, they’re fine. They become sustainable only if they fit your lifestyle, fit your expectations (getting all the info ahead of time helps here) and they work FOR YOU.
I have clients who are paleo eaters, clients who are ketogenic dieters and others who adhere to a Whole30 diet plan. Still others simply follow a balanced plan where we’ve limited unsupportive foods, relative to their goals. While I’m not a nutritionist, I’ve been working with it for so long that I’m able to make common sense recommendations for my clients.
Obesity and overweight are causes of a great deal of joint pain. It’s been estimated that every pound of weight lost by someone who is obese or significantly overweight translates to 5 pounds of stress off the knees during walking. The added movement load and sheer stress on joints like the knees and ankles is a major cause of ligament, tendon and joint stress.
Recent research points primarily to carbohydrates, especially sugars, as a cause of inflammation in joints. One study by the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) found that the carbohydrate composition of the average American diet increased the risk of osteoarthritis. Tim Griffin, PhD, led the study, which revealed some surprising results.
One of those was the revelation that the carbohydrate content of the typical weight loss diet increased the risk of osteoarthritis in mice, compared to high-fat diets. While the researchers also found that fiber played a role in the inflammatory response which seemed to be responsible for the increased risk, that fiber was associated with the high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet which exacerbated the problems in the first place.
Of note is the fact that the OMRF study noted that when the amount of sucrose – table sugar – was reduced, the pathology of the osteoarthritis among the murine (mouse) participants changed as well – for the better. More interesting still is that those changes were noted even with a high carbohydrate diet. All they changed was the amount of table sugar included in the diet. That alone was enough to create a positive difference.
SO what kind of diets or foods can help if you have arthritis, or just want to “oil up” your creaky joints? Well, you might want to try one of the diets I mentioned earlier – Ketogenic, Paleo or Whole30. All are chock full of anti-inflammatory foods and limit carbohydrates, especially sugars.
But if you want to start with incremental changes, here are some suggestions about where to start. Please take note that NO food is a “magic bullet,” just like there really aren’t any “good’ or “bad” foods. There are simply those foods which fit a nutrition plan that suits your goals or needs.
Focus on the anti-inflammatory foods
One way to increase your intake of anti-inflammatory foods is to get a good dose of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. You could add some fatty fish to your diet, such as:
- Anchovies (and not just on pizza)
Don’t like fatty (or any other kind of) fish? No problem, here’s a link to a great “burpless” (meaning you won’t taste the fish) fish oil supplement: Nordic Naturals Burpless Fish Oil Capsules. Other “non-fish” options include walnuts, almonds, flax seeds and chia seeds.
Get your antioxidants
Antioxidants destroy free radicals in the body. Free radicals come in 2 forms: reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS). Free radicals increase oxidative and other stress on nucleic acids (think DNA and RNA,) lipids and proteins.
They’ve been implicated in increased risk of diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Multiple Sclerosis. They’re also connected to diseases and conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure,) artherosclerosis (blockage/hardening of arteries,) asthma, cataracts, arthritis and a variety of cancers.
Free radicals come from endogenous sources (within the body) like cellular functions as well as from exogenous sources (outside the body.) Exogenous sources seem to be everywhere – pollution, alcohol, radiation (even low level, like your cell phone,) tobacco smoke, pesticides and industrial products.
Recent research has connected chronic stress to increased free radicals in the body. Increased inflammation occurring as a result of chronic stress leads to oxidative stress in cells, increasing free radical levels. Yeah, stress sucks here, too!
The critical dietary antioxidants include:
- Vitamin C – really critical since it is an essential vitamin. Your body can neither make nor store it.
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin E
Nuts, green tea and fresh fruits and vegetables are all good sources of these antioxidants. I recommend to ALL my clients that they take at least 1,000 mg of vitamin C daily, more if they can tolerate it. For myself, I take a minimum of 5,000 mg/day.
Flavonoids and spices
Flavonoids are plant-derived compounds that come largely from fruits and vegetables. They can reduce inflammation in joints and other parts of the body. Good sources include:
- Green tea
- Chocolate – stick to the dark stuff!
Spices that improve inflammation include Turmeric, which contains Curcumin. Found in Indian foods, it has shown promise in relieving inflammation. Capsaicin is a component of peppers, especially chili peppers. It has both anti-inflammatory and pain relief properties.
Olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil have all been indicated as anti-inflammatory agents, too. Add to this list high fiber foods like beans and (some) whole grains and you can easily round out a tasty and inflammation-relieving diet plan.
Simply put, ya gotta move!
For the majority of joint pain sufferers, regardless of cause, exercise tends to be the last thing they want to do. Every move makes their joints hurt more, or so it seems. So it can’t be a good idea, can it?
Research into exercise and joint pain says that yes, it is.
A 2010 Grenoble University study showed that regular, moderate intensity aerobic exercise helped “to reduce joint pain and improve function” in people with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA.) RA is an aggressive and highly painful form of arthritis.
Researchers found that moderate intensity walking, aerobic dance and aquatic exercise helped these patients control their weight and improve sleep, mood and overall health.
A Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) study found that high-intensity interval training on stationary cycles reduced inflammation in women with arthritis. The women, aged 20-49, saw reductions in their C-Reactive Protein (CRP) levels and reported less pain. Another positive side-effect? An increase in muscle mass.
A study at the Academy of Finland employed progressive high-impact training with postmenopausal women. They found improvements in cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength. Most astonishing, though, was the discovery that patellar cartilage quality improved dramatically during the study!
According to the study, “The most important finding was that the high-impact jumping exercise improved the biochemical composition of cartilage as investigated by MRI in subjects with mild knee osteoarthritis.”
So should you “jump” right in to a high-impact exercise program? Probably not. You SHOULD start with walking, preferably outdoors. Swimming is also a great and very safe way for people with joint pain to start exercising. Just moving through the water is resistance training, and will strengthen muscles and help you feel stronger and better.
Once you’ve found a way to start moving and exercising that you can maintain, I’d suggest adding some stretches that help your joints feel better. Stretching and mobility is an often overlooked aspect of fitness that can have a huge impact on joint pain, as well as help keep the body healthy as you increase activity frequency and exercise intensity.
- Lying on your back with your lower legs on a chair or couch, flatten your lower back to the floor. Holding that position, take three deep breaths. Next, place your hands under the knee of one leg. Slowly straighten that leg by locking your knee out straight. You’ll feel the hamstring, the muscle on the back of that leg, stretch. Keep holding your back on the floor and breathing. Hold the stretch for up to 30 seconds. Repeat on the other leg. You can do 2-3 reps per leg.
A nice bonus for this stretch is that you are actually getting some low-intensity work in on the quadriceps of the stretching leg. The quadriceps (quads) are responsible for knee extension, and their weakness is often a component of knee pain.
If you have access to a stability ball (Swiss ball,) you can progress to putting your legs on the ball. This will begin to engage the core muscles, important for preventing low back pain.
- Use the “Happy Baby” yoga pose. Lying on your back, draw your knees to your chest. Try to breathe through your nose, filling your belly with air first, then your chest. When you’ve gotten strong with this one, you can try the “Egg Roll.”
Hold the pose, then simply rock to one side. Do this by leading with the eyes, then turning the head in the direction you want to go. To come back through the start position to the other side, lead with your eyes, then your head again. It’s actually kind of fun!
It also helps you begin to feel like you are in control of your own body again, something joint pain sufferers often feel has been missing for them.
- Try the Cat-Cow Stretch. Kneeling on all fours, slowly arch your back toward the ceiling, like a cat. Take 2-3 deep breaths. Then slowly allow your back to come back to neutral. Now slowly let your belly fall toward the floor, letting your back follow. Don’t push into pain. Take 2-3 deep breaths. Do 3-5 reps in each direction.
When you are ready, I strongly suggest strength training. Stronger muscles relieve stress on joints. This helps reduce pain. I’ve had clients completely eliminate their joint pain by getting stronger, taking care of their cardiovascular fitness and maintaining flexibility and mobility.
Here’s a really simple starter strength workout. You’ll need some dumbbells, a resistance band (I’d suggest one of these red bands from Resistance Band Training Systems) and some floor space.
Start with some core work:
1-3 rounds (start with 1 and add as you feel stronger):
Bird Dog X 10
(Kneel on all fours. Slowly extend the right arm toward the wall in front of you and the left leg toward the wall behind you. Go “long,” not high. Hold for 3 seconds, return slowly to start. Repeat the other way. Alternate sides for a total of 10.)
Single Leg Stance X 30 seconds/leg
(Stand on one leg. Plant your whole foot into the floor. Brace your abs and squeeze the muscles in your whole leg. Try to stay on one leg for 30 seconds. Switch and repeat on other leg.)
Plank X 30 seconds
(A picture is worth a thousand words…)
Then move on to some strength training:
1-3 rounds (advice as above):
Push-Up Position Hold X 30 seconds
(Duplicate the plank position, but with the arms extended. You can put your knees down on this one, too.)
Squat X 10
(Point the feet straight ahead, plant the heels, drop the hips back as if sitting back into a chair. Keep the head and chest tall and the abs braced. On the way up, squeeze the butt. Stand all the way up.)
Band Row X 10
(Wrap the band around a staircase, pole or other sturdy item. Grab one side of the loop in each hand. Plant the feet, brace the abs, bend the knees. Squeezing the shoulder blades together gently, draw the elbows backward, pulling the band. Slowly return and repeat.)
DB OH Press X 10
(Stand. Hold the Dumbbells at your shoulders with the palms facing forward. Brace the abs, bend the knees. Slowly push the DB’s straight up until the elbows are straight. Lower slowly, in about 4 seconds, to the start point. Repeat.)
That’s it! Now, go for a walk and do a little stretching.
The Bottom Line
There are lots of people with serious conditions that cause joint pain. Most likely, however, if you are suffering from joint pain, the causes are more related to lifestyle than disease.
Being sedentary is a precursor to immobility. When your joints are immobile, moving them is difficult and often painful.
Poor diet contributes to everything from low energy to poor mood to joint pain and stiffness. Garbage in, garbage out.
The power to improve in these areas is in your hands. It’s also in your head, your legs, your abs, your arms and the rest of you.
As always, I’m here if you have questions.
Keep the faith and keep after it!
Elise L. Donovan, Erika Barboza Prado Lopes, Albert Batushansky, Mike Kinter, Timothy M. Griffin. Independent effects of dietary fat and sucrose content on chondrocyte metabolism and osteoarthritis pathology in mice. Disease Models & Mechanisms, 2018
Phaniendra, A., et al., Free Radicals: Properties, Sources, Targets and Their Implication in Various Diseases, Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry, July 2014
Athan Baillet, Nadine Zeboulon, Laure Gossec, Christophe Combescure, Louis-Antoine Bodin, Robert Juvin, Maxime Dougados, Philippe Gaudin. Efficacy of cardio-respiratory aerobic exercise in rheumatoid arthritis: Meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Arthritis Care & Research, 2010
Janne Sandstad, Dorthe Stensvold, Mari Hoff, Bjarne M. Nes, Ingerid Arbo, Anja Bye. The effects of high intensity interval training in women with rheumatic disease: a pilot study. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2015
Jarmo Koli, Juhani Multanen, Urho M. Kujala, Arja Häkkinen, Miika T. Nieminen, Hannu Kautiainen, Eveliina Lammentausta, Timo Jämsä, Riikka Ahola, Harri Selänne, Ilkka Kiviranta, Ari Heinonen. Effect of Exercise on Patellar Cartilage in Women with Mild Knee Osteoarthritis. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2015