How to Reduce Joint and Arthritis Pain with Lifestyle Medicine

By Lifestyle Medicine Staff

How to Reduce Joint and Arthritis Pain with Lifestyle Medicine

Joint pain is common and can be a limiting factor in work, recreation, and overall quality of life. Osteoarthritis, caused by degeneration of the cartilage between joints, affects 32.5 million adults in the US, and nearly 600 million adults worldwide. It most often occurs in the joints we move and bear weight through the most like the hands, hips, and knees. Certain factors such as injury or overuse, age, weight, sedentary behavior, smoking, or gender (with women often experiencing higher rates of osteoarthritis) may increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis. Currently, there is no cure or reversal for the degenerative changes in osteoarthritis, making it the leading cause of permanent disability.

Without a cure for degenerative joint diseases, medical professionals often treat osteoarthritis with pain medications. While pain medication use may be helpful in the short-term, long-term use can lead to stomach, kidney, liver, or heart damage. While medications certainly have their place in the treatment of osteoarthritis, our goal is to investigate what more can be done by exploring lifestyle medicine approaches to improve joint health.

Adopting these lifestyle medicine strategies may help you manage your joint pain and enhance your overall daily quality of life, paving the way for smoother, more comfortable days ahead.

Nutrition Choices to Reduce Arthritis Pain

One of the most basic but often overlooked lifestyle changes we can make comes in what we choose to eat. Our dietary choices not only fuel our bodies but also fuel the health and function of our joints. Understanding how specific foods and nutrients impact joint health can empower us to make informed decisions that support our joint health.

The Western diet, a common dietary pattern in the US, is high in calorie-dense processed foods, unhealthy fats, and low in nutrients and fiber. High sugar intake has also been linked to arthritis pain. High-calorie diets that lead to weight gain can lead to increased joint degeneration, but simultaneously the Western diet can increase the inflammatory process of joints, which compounds their degeneration.

Specifically, the Western diet has been linked to a higher risk of both radiographic and symptomatic worsening of knee osteoarthritis when compared to a Mediterranean-like diet. In contrast, the Mediterranean diet, rich in legumes, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats is known for its joint health benefits. Switching diets may reduce pain and inflammation, boost mobility, and slow cartilage degeneration.

Supplements to Reduce Arthritis Pain

Omega-3

Beyond dietary choices, there is growing interest in the potential of nutritional supplements to further support joint health and mitigate osteoarthritis.

The future of osteoarthritis treatment may involve targeting inflammatory mediators, and one supplement shown to decrease inflammatory mediators is omega-3 fatty acids. Another study found that a specialized resolving mediator derived from omega-3 fatty acids, resolvin D1 (RvD1), yields promising therapeutic potential in joint inflammation. RvD1 is thought to protect chondrocytes from inflammatory damage and promote their proliferative and repair capabilities.

In studies involving human subjects, RvD1 has been shown to have a similar protective antioxidant effect on chondrocytes and lead to resolution of both acute and chronic joint inflammatory processes. By decreasing overall inflammation within the joint, RvD1 may preserve joint homeostasis and support long-term joint health.

For those with osteoarthritis, it is recommended to take 350-2400 mg of omega-3 supplementation per day for optimal relief of joint pain and improvement of joint function.

Omega-3 supplementation to increase RvD1 levels, combined with a low-inflammatory diet such as the Mediterranean diet, offer potential nutritional elements that could help lower systemic inflammation and promote optimal joint health. This diet and supplementation combination has potential impacts for those with osteoarthritis as well as joint pain related to rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the immune system improperly creates inflammation and attacks the lining of joints, leading to pain and stiffness. A systematic review found that omega-3 fatty acids reduce rheumatoid arthritis activity by decreasing inflammation and oxidative stress, partly through gut microbiota benefits. Researchers advise combining the Mediterranean diet with at least twice a week consumption of oily fish (such as salmon) and/or two grams per day of omega-3 supplementation. To obtain recommendations specific to your needs, schedule a visit with a dietitian to optimize your dietary and supplementation needs.

Turmeric

Turmeric is another supplement commonly used to reduce joint pain. Turmeric is a medicinal herb that contains curcumin, which has been shown to reduce inflammation and pain at levels equivalent to pharmaceutical pain-relievers.

Numerous studies show that curcumin (which is found in turmeric) can be a great alternative for those intolerant to anti-inflammatory drugs. For example, this study showed that participants who took 1,500 mg per day of Curcuma domestica for four weeks experienced similar pain relief as those who took 1,200 mg of Ibuprofen, which sometimes has the side effect of abdominal discomfort. Another study showed 1,500 mg of curcumin per day offered equivalent pain relief to 100 mg of diclofenac, but with no side effects.

For those with osteoarthritis, it is recommended to take 1.5 grams (1,500 mg) per day of turmeric to reduce inflammation and offer joint pain relief. Also, taking piperine (black pepper) along with turmeric has been shown to potentially increase curcumin bioavailability, therefore increasing its efficacy. To obtain recommendations specific to your needs, schedule a visit with a dietitian to optimize your dietary and supplementation needs.

Sleep Factors to Reduce Arthritis Pain

Sleep variability and quality may be significant factors that can impact joint health. Research has shown that maintaining a regular sleep schedule is also important for quality sleep and reducing joint inflammation. Studies found that people who go to bed and wake up at regular times consistently reduce leukocyte platelet aggregates, a prominent mediator of joint inflammation that early research shows may contribute to multiple different types of inflammatory joint diseases.

Another important consideration is limiting sleep disturbances to improve sleep quality. Research suggests that joint inflammation, pain sensitivity, and rheumatoid arthritis disease progression may increase with consistent sleep disturbances. Poor sleep increases the production of proinflammatory marker NF-κB, which may further exacerbate symptoms of joint pain. For those who experience trouble sleeping, research has shown that established sleep interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, may also be beneficial in reducing joint and back pain.

Lastly, lack of sleep impacts how people perceive pain, especially those with long-standing pain. However, it is important to note that restorative sleep can restore pain sensitivity back to normal. The amount of restorative sleep required to stabilize pain sensitivity depends on the duration of sleep deprivation, i.e. chronic sleep deprivation may require longer hours (more than 8 hours) of restorative sleep.

Movement to Reduce Arthritis Pain

While it may seem counterintuitive, movement can actually reduce joint pain, especially for those with osteoarthritis. Regular, low-impact physical activity helps maintain and improve the range of motion in affected joints by stimulating the production of synovial fluid, which lubricates the joints, reducing stiffness and pain.

To help understand this process, we can think of joints like hinges on a door. Over time, without regular use and maintenance, hinges can become stiff and creaky, making it difficult for the door to open and close smoothly. Like door hinges, joints in the body can become stiff and creaky when they aren’t moved or lubricated.

We can think of synovial fluid as WD-40 for joints. Just like we lubricate door hinges with WD-4 to reduce friction and allow the door to move freely, regular movement produces and circulates synovial fluid, which acts as a natural lubricant in the joint. This fluid reduces friction between our bones, nourishes the cartilage, and helps keep your joints flexible and pain-free.

Strengthening the muscles around the joints is another crucial benefit of exercise for joint pain relief. Strong muscles provide better support and stability to the joints, reducing the load and stress placed on them. This muscular support helps prevent further joint damage and alleviates pain by distributing the forces exerted on the joints more evenly. Additionally, exercise encourages the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, which can help reduce pain perception and improve mood.

While certain exercises may worsen lower body joint pain, such as those that increase loads on a joint (e.g., high-impact activities like running or jumping), there are many options to modify or perform different movements. For example, if you have knee or hip pain with a squat, try reducing the depth of your squat. By doing this, you are reducing the overall load on those joints. Low-impact activities such as walking, swimming, biking, yoga, and the elliptical can be excellent options for those with lower body joint pain as they tend to induce low loads through the knee and hip joints.

If performing lower body exercises isn’t working for you on a given day, this is a great time to work out other body parts like your core, chest, back, and arms. Even simple things like working on range of motion can go a long way in helping reduce pain.

So, just like applying WD-40 keeps door hinges functioning smoothly, incorporating regular, gentle movement into your daily routine keeps your joints well-lubricated and operating efficiently, reducing stiffness and discomfort.