Joint pain is the pits, right? While you once eased painlessly through your day probably thinking little about your knees or wrists, when your joints start to hurt, it’s always on your mind. Maybe you have trouble typing on the computer; your run becomes difficult; or climbing stairs starts to hurt.
Joint pain comes up frequently in sessions with my clients, and I recently had a bout with runner’s knee that called for me to take my own advice. Before popping NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen–which may have serious side effects, especially when used longterm, and may even delay healing–consider treating the cause of the pain to find joint pain relief.
What Causes Joint Pain?
Joint pain is extremely common and can be caused by chronic disease conditions (ongoing) or acute issues (temporary) such as injury. Knee pain is the most common joint pain complaint, followed by shoulder and hip pain. Joint pain can affect any part of your body, from your ankles and feet to your shoulders and hands. As you get older, painful joints become increasingly more common, but it’s important to determine the cause so you know how to address the pain. While we might be likely to pop a painkiller for relief, it won’t address the underlying cause of the pain and can actually cause it to worsen over time.
The most common causes of joint pain include the following:
- autoimmune disease
- sprains, strains, injury
- repetitive stress
- low estrogen associated with peri-menopause & menopause
- leaky gut
Your doctor can help you with a diagnosis so you’ll know what you’re treating. Joint pain is typically accompanied by inflammation, especially if the joint is swollen or warm, or if you’ve been diagnosed with any “–itis” condition, so treating this underlying factor is key for longterm wellness.
How to Heal Joint Pain Naturally
Although there are many common denominators for treatment, addressing joint pain will depend on the cause. For example, an autoimmune diet and protocol is useful for addressing the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis, whereas collagen and bone broth might be called for to speed healing for joint pain relative to injury or overuse. In every case, addressing diet, adding supplemental support, lifestyle modifications, and anti-inflammatory measures will improve joint pain regardless of the cause.
The first place to start: Certain foods contribute to the inflammation you want to avoid, and adding anti-inflammatory foods quells the inflammation that contributes to pain. Try removing the following inflammatory foods:
- Gluten and refined carbs such as white flour, breads, crackers, tortillas, cereals
- Cow dairy
- Trans fats and refined vegetable oils
- Nightshade vegetables including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes (not sweet potatoes). Read my post on lectins, the potentially inflammatory compound in nightshade vegetables. Anecdotally, those dealing with osteoarthritis may find relief in eliminating nightshades.
Food intolerances and leaky gut can cause or worsen joint pain. Consider an elimination diet to determine which foods cause flare-ups. If you have chronic digestive issues such as bloating, gas, constipation, or diarrhea, you likely have leaky gut, which causes systemic inflammation. Learn to address and heal leaky gut here.
Focus on an anti-inflammatory diet that’s plant-based, meaning the base of your meals should be vegetables of all types. Include the leafys: kale, chard, spinach, collards, arugula, salad greens, etc; and the crunchies: carrot, cucumber, celery, cruciferous, etc. Starchy root vegetables are great too, but you may need to avoid potatoes (Sweet potatoes are fine). Nightshades *may* promote inflammatory activity in joints, especially in the case of arthritis. A month-long elimination diet where you remove nightshades to see if pain decreases is a surefire way to test if this is true for you.
Add to your veggies however much protein is right for you (dependent upon your age, gender, activity level), and focus on omega 3-rich anti-inflammatory proteins like wild salmon and sardines. Avoid conventional beef and meat that is higher in inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids.
Choose healthy fats like ghee, coconut oil, and olive oil, and avoid refined vegetable oils (corn, soy, canola, and anything in a jug labeled “vegetable oil”) and margarine. Legumes such as lentils and beans work for some people but may cause joint flares for others, especially in the case of autoimmune disease. I recommend avoiding grains to speed healing.
Certain foods pack an extra anti-inflammatory punch:
- Wild salmon, sardines, ling cod, sablefish
- Berries, especially blueberries
- green tea
- turmeric & ginger (try my anti-inflammatory turmeric tonic!)
- chia seeds, walnuts, and hemp hearts (delicious in smoothies)
- More on how to eat an anti-inflammatory diet here.
Bone broth is also a must for healthy joints. It’s rich in the amino acids, collagen, and gelatin your joints use for repair. Also great for skin hair, and gut health. Use as a base for soups and stews, or just sip a mug with sea salt several times weekly.
While it’s great to get healing nutrients from your diet, certain supplements help quell inflammation and pain, rebalance the body, and speed healing.
- Curcumin (active constituent in turmeric) is the superstar for joint pain and has been proven more effective than NSAIDs (and much safer!) for chronic pain relief. I recommend this one, twice daily. More effective if taken with black pepper for maximum absorption.
- Wobezyme is an amazing enzyme formula that promotes mobility in joints and muscles. It acts as a “biological vacuum cleaner” that digests damaged proteins that lodge in joints and other tissues where they cause inflammation and delay the healing process. It’s a blend of systemic enzymes that stimulate quicker healing and reduce swelling, immobility, inflammation, tenderness, and pain. It’s useful for any inflammatory condition, really. Take 3 caps 45 minutes before meals or 2 hours after.
- Collagen is one of my favorites for joint care. Studies show its efficacy for supporting and healing worn joints . It has certainly made a world of difference for my knees. Collagen is a protein that contains many beneficial amino acids that can actually help rebuild joints by replenishing worn cartilage and supporting tendons and ligaments. Super helpful for osteo and rheumatoid arthritis. Vitamin C is also crucial for cartilage repair, so you can also supplement with it. Collagen (and gelatin) is excellent for skin and hair and for healing leaky gut. Win-win-win. I add it daily to my smoothies and recommend this brand.
- Fish oil is rich in the omega 3s needed to lubricate joints and combat inflammation. Studies show that daily ingestion of at least three grams of a mixture of EPA and DHA has been found to reduce stiffness and joint pain. Also great for mood and cognition (and skin and hair again). I use and recommend this one.
- Hyalauronic acid is found in skin tissue can also be super beneficial to relieve joint pain. It provides a gliding action where joint surfaces meet and provides cushioning by storing and dissipating the energy created during impact. I have often recommended this to clients and even used it on my dog’s achy joints with excellent results. I’ve only used this brand (take internally).
- You’ve probably heard that glucosamine and chondroitin are useful for joint pain, but studies are very mixed and inconclusive.
Certain topical applications like arnica or CBD joint creams can help. Capsaicin (the active component in hot peppers) creams may also relieve pain. Capsaicin works by first stimulating and then decreasing the intensity of pain signals in the body. You can make your own easily here.
Tried and true rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) works well for injuries. Move to alternating hot and cold therapies after initially using RICE for 3 days or so. I iced my runner’s knee for a few weeks and it does help the inflammation. Use care with compression and braces on certain knee injuries– compression may make it worse in some cases.
For longterm joint care, make sure you alternate high and low impact activity and work on flexibility to prevent injury. Many knee injuries are caused by tight hips. Yoga, stretching, and foam rolling can be great ways to increase flexibility and release tightness. Foam rolling helped my tight hips so much!
Acupuncture is an excellent therapy to speed injury healing or address chronic joint pain. Consider physical therapy also.
Most importantly, make sure you’re at a healthy weight. Joint pain in the knees and hips can be caused or exacerbated by carrying around too much weight for your frame. Here are 9 strategies for fat loss.
Reduce your stress levels. Stress causes an increase in cortisol “fight or flight” hormone production that, when chronic, causes inflammation and makes one injury-prone. We all have stress in our lives, but you can manage yours by getting enough sleep, eating in regular intervals for blood sugar balance, and learning to support yourself during especially stressful times so your health stays intact.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.