7 Surprising Foods That Ease Joint Pain, According to RDs
Joint pain is no walk in the park (literally, at times) and can manifest in a variety of ways, from sports injuries to chronic stiffness and swelling. “Joint pain can show up in a number of ways such as shoulder, knee, or hip pain. It can be caused by a number of conditions, such as tendonitis or a ligament tear,” says Melissa Mitri, MS, RD of Wellness Verge. “If you're experiencing this type of constant pain, it's recommended to consult with an orthopedist or other trusted healthcare provider to determine if you have arthritis.”
What is causing your joint pain? It could be a number of things, from an old injury to the first signs of arthritis. Now studies show us that the foods we eat can lower inflammation and help relieve arthritic pain.
What is arthritis?
If you suffer from joint pain, you may have arthritis. “Arthritis is an inflammatory condition in the joints and can result in joint inflammation, stiffness, and pain. There are several possible causes of arthritis such as older age, joint overuse, genetics, obesity, or an autoimmune condition,” explains Mitri. “Nutrition can impact inflammation and joint health in the body, for better or for worse.”
Jacob Hascalovici, MD, PhD and chief medical officer of Clearing comments: “To put it simply, arthritis means ‘joint inflammation.’ Generally, any type of joint inflammation is considered a symptom of another health condition, and not a diagnosis on its own,” he says, adding that doctors use the term to refer to any condition that’s causing inflammation in your joints. “Arthritis is one of the most common types of joint inflammation, and there are more than 100 different subtypes of arthritis, not to mention all the other causes for joint pain. Inflammation is often the villain behind hurting joints. Injuries, infections, immune system disorders and repetitive use can stress a joint, making it release chemicals as it tries to protect itself,” he adds. “These chemicals often cause tissue swelling, soreness, stiffness, aches and other kinds of pain.”
Nearly half of adults with arthritis describe their pain as “persistent,” and one in four say that their pain is “severe,” according to the CDC, notes Hascalovici. “People with chronic arthritis pain sometimes describe it as a constant, dull ache in the joints that are affected. Chronic arthritis pain can also feel like pressure or stiffness when you’re not using your joints,” he says. “Other than pain, symptoms related to arthritic inflammation can include chronic eye inflammation, redness and dry eye, inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS) and abdominal pain, swollen fingers and toes, joints that fuse together, difficulty exercising, small lumps under your skin in areas where the bone is visible, or damage to blood vessels and organs.”
What’s the difference between arthritis and other types of joint pain?
Arthritis specifically refers to either inflammation or so-called “wear and tear” of the joint space,” says Sheetal DeCaria MD, Double Board Certified Integrative Pain Physician, bestselling author, and media expert. “However, joint pain can also be tied to ligament tears or other injuries.”
“Arthritis can be divided into two broad categories: inflammatory and degenerative,” she further notes. “Degenerative arthritis is wear-and-tear arthritis. You may have heard the term, bone on bone, for example. This type of arthritis typically worsens as we age and is not related to inflammation. Inflammatory arthritis can be associated with autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis, or conditions like gout or pseudogout.”
“The type of pain associated with arthritis can feel different than other types of joint pain. For example, you may experience a dull ache, pain, or burning sensation. It can also feel swollen and sore, and make it difficult to move,” adds Mitri, further elaborating that arthritis primarily affects the hip, knees, and lower back joints. “The pain and swelling typically is the worst first thing in the morning, and also at any time of day after exertion,” she adds.
What helps relieve joint pain?
The good news: While there’s no “cure” for arthritis, lifestyle modifications can make a meaningful difference in how you feel.
“There are several ways to alleviate arthritis pain, such as engaging in physical therapy, gentle stretching and yoga, eating healthy, and avoiding habits that promote inflammation such as smoking, drinking alcohol, or drinking sugary beverages like soda,” says Mitri. Supplements such as turmeric and creams can also help.
Your diet is something you can easily take control of, and you may find following an anti-inflammatory diet, such as a whole-food, plant-based diet, and avoiding junk food helps you feel better. (Skeptical? Check out “I Got Over Joint Pain on a Plant-Based Diet”) “Certain foods, like refined carbohydrates and processed sugars, are known to trigger inflammation and can worsen symptoms of joint pain and arthritis.
A high sugar intake may contribute to unhealthy bacteria in your gut that may irritate your cells, so sugar-sweetened beverages like soda should be avoided. The same can be said for fried foods: Frying modifies the chemical makeup of food. Your body digests fried food differently, and triggers inflammation as it digests,” says Hascalovici. Echoing Hascalovici, Mitri says that certain foods can promote inflammation and may worsen arthritis, such as fried foods, fatty meats, and processed baked goods. “Sugary beverages like soda, juice, and alcohol can also worsen inflammation and trigger arthritis flare-ups,” she continues. Read more on How one doctor used diet to heal his arthritis.
“On the flip side, foods that are rich in fiber, healthy fats, and antioxidants can help fight inflammation. By stabilizing the blood sugar, reducing oxidative stress and improving digestion, these foods are shown to reduce inflammation,” Hascalovici continues, highlighting anti-inflammatory stars such as dark green, leafy vegetables (such as broccoli, spinach and kale), berries (especially blueberries, raspberries and strawberries), olives and olive oil, nuts (almonds, pistachios and pecans), and green tea
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all diet, and the level of relief and improvement you experience with your condition can vary. “Nutrition is complex, so you may not have the exact same outcomes as others who are also following an anti-inflammatory eating plan. That said, adding fruits and vegetables, replacing heavily salted food with spices instead and choosing whole grains and healthy fats when possible is an excellent way to fuel your bod,” says Hascalovici, adding that if you have any joint pain or arthritis, it’s a great idea to discuss anti-inflammatory diet options with your doctor. For more on foods that heal various conditions, check out The Ultimate Prescription For Pain Relief: The Food We Eat.
7 Foods That Fight Joint Pain
1. Freeze-dried Strawberries
Arthritis is quite literally joint inflammation (it’s sometimes even called that), so it should come as no surprise that eating foods that fight inflammation may help to abate arthritic symptoms. So first order in the fight against arthritis? Bring on the inflammation-fighting antioxidants. “Freeze-dried strawberries were shown to significantly lower joint pain in those with osteoarthritis in a 2017 study,” says Holly Klamer, MS, RDN, writer at My Crohn's and Colitis Team. “The reason for this ease in joint pain is strawberries are a source of antioxidants which can help protect against inflammation. Lowering inflammation may help bring relief from joint pain.”
In general, eating to fight inflammation lowers your risk of disease and prevents infection, certainly convincing reasons to adopt a plant-based, antioxidant-rich diet.
“Avocados are surprisingly helpful at easing joint pain thanks to their anti-inflammatory nutrients,” says Trista K. Best, MPH, RD, LDN, Balance One. “They are packed with healthy fats that work in the body to reduce inflammation and lubricate painful and swollen joints.” To give your smoothie an ultra-luxurious texture, add half an avocado to your favorite smoothie recipe.
Why reach for the bag of chips when you can slice up broccoli stalks and sprinkle on a little salt? Nothing better for an afternoon pick-me-up. Your joints agree: “Broccoli gets a lot of credit for its many health benefits, but one that does not get much attention for that it should is easing joint pain,” says Best. “The antioxidants in broccoli work to reduce free radical damage caused by oxidants in the body. These nutrients include vitamins A, C, and K just to name a few."
4. Fresh Berries
“Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and pomegranates contain polyphenols, which are antioxidants,” comments Diana Gariglio-Clelland, RD, for Next Luxury. “Antioxidants help protect cells against damage and inflammation, meaning they may be able to ease joint pain related to arthritis.”
5. Dark Leafy Greens
It’s not just Popeye’s one-and-only that protects your joints from inflammation. “Besides spinach, other dark green vegetables such as kale, mustard greens, and Swiss chard are rich in vitamin K, which has been shown to have a potential protective effect against inflammatory conditions,” comments Gariglio-Clelland. “Inflammation leads to pain, so vitamin K may help prevent joint pain and related conditions,” she adds, pointing to this study.
Bonus: Eating dark leafy greens can help your body in so many ways from improving your muscle strength to decreasing your risk of type two diabetes.
Nothing like eating ripe cherries, preferably plopped on a lakefront dock or at the beach, huh? But even on the couch, these nutritious stars hit the spot. “Cherries have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and may help ease joint pain associated with gout and osteoarthritis,” says Klamer.
“A 2016 review found evidence supporting turmeric as a treatment for arthritis,” offers Klamer. “The main antioxidant compound in turmeric, curcumin, is thought to provide the anti-inflammatory benefits that can help joint pain,” she continues. Freshly ground turmeric over a bowl of curry or stirred into our favorite homemade salad dressing — coming to a dinner table near us.
Bottom Line: Eating these healthy foods is a good idea for your joint health and arthritis.
“As an integrative physician, I am often promoting an anti-inflammatory diet for pain as well as other health issues. Foods can lead to chronic low-grade levels of inflammation that can manifest themselves as joint pain, headaches, back pain, or fatigue. I tell my patients to incorporate anti-inflammatory foods as frequently as possible and to eliminate processed, packaged, and sugary foods,” says DeCaria. “Typically they will begin to see improvements in their symptoms within a month. The idea is to eat an anti-inflammatory diet 80% of the time if possible to maintain good health.”
If you’re daunted by the prospect of overhauling your diet, remember, tiny tweaks can add up to big changes over time. “If you're suffering from arthritis pain, start by adding in one anti-inflammatory food each day, such as spinach, and eliminating one proinflammatory one, such as soda,” says Mitri, emphasizing that eating fewer inflammatory foods and a more anti-inflammatory diet overall can support better joint health and reduce arthritis symptoms (check out 10 Anti-Inflammatory Foods You Should Be Eating Right Now). Also, eating cherries every day can support happy taste buds, too, dear readers.
One in four Americans are afflicted with arthritis. With May marking National Arthritis Awareness Month, now is a fitting time to look at some of the best foods you can eat to help with one of the most widespread health issues in the country. Below, RDs weigh in on the best foods to support joint health beyond spinach — since Popeye already drew your attention to that one back in the Saturday morning cartoon slot days.
It goes without saying, but if you think you’re suffering from arthritis, consult with a medical professional to determine the best path of treatment for you.