By Dr. Mercola
Joint pain is incredibly common, impacting an estimated 30 percent of U.S. adults and causing pain, swelling and stiffness that can range from mildly irritating to completely debilitating.
While knee pain is the most common joint pain reported, shoulder, finger and hip pain are also common, and may occur from numerous causes such as osteoarthritis, injury, repetitive movement or strain on the joint, and poor posture.
Aging is another factor, as with age, the flexible tissues in your body tend to lose their elasticity, leading to sagging and wrinkling of skin, stiff muscles and painful joints.
This process may be exacerbated by inactivity, which promotes muscle weakness, joint contractures, and loss of range of motion.
This, in turn, can lead to more pain and loss of function, and even less activity.
Many people are under the impression that exercise is somehow dangerous for their joints, and joint pain is a condition that requires rest to recover … in reality, the opposite is true – exercise is essential for healthy joints and may even help to improve joint pain and function.
If You Have Joint Pain, Exercise is a Must
The notion that exercise is detrimental to your joints is a misconception, as there is no evidence to support this belief. Instead, the evidence points to exercise having a positive impact on joint tissues -- if you exercise sufficiently to lose weight, or maintain an ideal weight, you can in fact reduce your risk of developing joint pain due to osteoarthritis rather than increase your risk. Exercise can also improve bone density and joint function, which can help prevent and alleviate osteoarthritis (a major cause of joint pain) as you age.
As noted by Harvard Health Publications:
"… limiting your movements can weaken muscles, compounding joint trouble, and affect your posture, setting off a cascade of further problems. And while pain relievers and cold or hot packs may offer quick relief, fixes like these are merely temporary.
By contrast, the right set of exercises can be a long-lasting way to tame ankle, knee, hip, or shoulder pain. Practiced regularly, joint pain relief workouts might permit you to postpone—or even avoid—surgery on a problem joint that has been worsening for years by strengthening key supportive muscles and restoring flexibility."
Case in point, research shows that people with rheumatoid arthritis, which causes joint pain, stiffness and deformities, who did weight training for 24 weeks improved their function by up to 30 percent and their strength by 120 percent. Unfortunately, many with joint pain are missing out on these potential benefits. Research from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found that over 40 percent of men and 56 percent of women with knee osteoarthritis were inactive, which means they did not engage in even one 10-minute period of moderate-to-vigorous activity all week.
Exercise Can Also Help Your Joints via Weight Loss
Arthritis rates are more than twice as high in obese people as those who are normal weight, because the extra weight puts more pressure on your joints, as well as increases inflammation in your body. This can not only lead to osteoarthritis, it can also make joint pain from any cause exponentially worse.
Exercise, along with a healthy diet, can help you to jumpstart weight loss if you're overweight, and this can lead to tremendous improvements in your joint pain. Harvard Health Publications states:
"Each pound you lose reduces knee pressure in every step you take. One study found that the risk of developing osteoarthritis dropped 50% with each 11-pound weight loss among younger obese women. If older men lost enough weight to shift from an obese classification to just overweight — that is, from a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher down to one that fell between 25 and 29.9 — the researchers estimated knee osteoarthritis would decrease by a fifth. For older women, that shift would cut knee osteoarthritis by a third."
Are There Special Considerations for Exercising With Joint Pain?
There are some factors to consider, particularly if your pain worsens with movement, as you do not want to strain a significantly unstable joint. Pain during movement is one of the most common and debilitating symptoms of osteoarthritis, and typically this is the result of your bones starting to come into contact with each other as cartilage and synovial fluid is reduced.
If you find that you're in pain for longer than one hour after your exercise session, you should slow down or choose another form of exercise. Assistive devices are also helpful to decrease the pressure on affected joints during your workout. You may also want to work with a physical therapist or qualified personal trainer who can develop a safe range of activities for you.
Your program should include a range of activities, just as I recommend for any exerciser. Weight training, high-intensity cardio, stretching and core work can all be integrated into your routine.
My most highly recommended form of exercise is Peak Fitness, and this program can be used by virtually everyone. However, if you've already developed osteoarthritis in your knee, you'll want to incorporate exercises that strengthen the quadriceps muscle at the front of your thigh. And, rather than running or other high-impact exercise, you may be better off with non-weight-bearing exercises like swimming and bicycling.
Natural Tips for Pain Relief and Cartilage Loss
Cartilage loss in your knees, one of the hallmarks of osteoarthritis, is associated with low levels of vitamin D. So if you're struggling with joint pain due to osteoarthritis, get your vitamin D levels tested, then optimize them using safe sun exposure or indoor tanning on a safe tanning bed. If neither of these options are available, supplementation with vitamin D3 can be considered.
To find out the details, watch my free one-hour vitamin D lecture.
In addition, when exposed to sunshine your skin produces two types of sulfur: cholesterol sulfate, and vitamin D3 sulfate. Sulfur plays a vital role in the structure and biological activity of both proteins and enzymes. If you don't have sufficient amounts of sulfur in your body this deficiency can cascade into a number of health problems, including impacting your joints and connective tissues.
In addition to making sure you're getting high amounts of sulfur-rich foods in your diet, such as high-quality (organic and/or grass-fed/pastured) beef and poultry, Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a senior scientist at MIT, recommends soaking your body in magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) baths to compensate and counteract sulfur deficiency. She uses about 1/4 cup in a tub of water, twice a week. It's particularly useful if you have joint problems or arthritis.
As for supplements, methylsulfonylmethane, commonly known by its acronym, MSM, is also an option. MSM is an organic form of sulfur and a potent antioxidant, naturally found in many plants.
For dealing with joint pain, I suggest you avoid anti-inflammatory drugs like non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and analgesics, like Tylenol, which are often recommended to osteoarthritis patients. Chronic use of these types of medications is associated with significant, and very serious side effects such as kidney and/or liver damage.
Safer, and very effective, options to help relieve joint pain include:
- Eggshell membrane: The eggshell membrane is the unique protective barrier between the egg white and the mineralized eggshell. The membrane contains elastin, a protein that supports cartilage health, and collagen, a fibrous protein that supports cartilage and connective tissue strength and elasticity.
It also contains transforming growth factor-b, a protein that supports tissue rejuvenation, along with other amino acids and structural components that support the stability and flexibility of your joints by providing them with the building blocks needed to build cartilage.
- Hyaluronic acid (HA): Hyaluronic acid is a key component of your cartilage, responsible for moving nutrients into your cells and moving waste out. One of its most important biological functions is the retention of water… second only to providing nutrients and removing waste from cells that lack a direct blood supply, such as cartilage cells.
Unfortunately, the process of normal aging reduces the amount of HA synthesized by your body. Oral hyaluronic acid supplementation may effectively help most people cushion their joints after just 2 to 4 months.
- Boswellia: Also known as boswellin or "Indian frankincense," this Indian herb is one treatment I've found to be particularly useful against arthritic inflammation and associated pain. With sustained use, boswellia may help maintain steady blood flow to your joints, supporting your joint tissues' ability to boost flexibility and strength.
- Turmeric / curcumin: A study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that taking turmeric extracts each day for six weeks was just as effective as ibuprofen for relieving knee osteoarthritis pain. This is most likely related to the anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin -- the pigment that gives the turmeric spice its yellow-orange color.
- Animal-based omega-3 fats: These are excellent for arthritis because omega-3s are well known to help reduce inflammation. Look for a high-quality, animal-based source such as krill oil.
- Astaxanthin: An anti-inflammatory antioxidant that affects a wide range of inflammation mediators, but in a gentler, less concentrated manner and without the negative side effects associated with steroidal and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. And it works for a high percentage of people. In one study, more than 80 percent of arthritis sufferers improved with astaxanthin.
A Final Point about Glucosamine and Chondroitin
You've probably heard that glucosamine and chondroitin (two animal products marketed as food supplements) can help relieve symptoms of osteoarthritis such as joint pain. However, the results from studies evaluating these supplements have been mixed, and many do not appear to be getting any significant relief from either glucosamine or chondroitin.
Further, while generally considered to be free of side effects, some people do experience gastrointestinal upset from it. Chondroitin molecules are large, making it difficult for your body to digest, which could be what causes problems for some people.
Also, only a small fraction of the glucosamine you take is actually utilized by your body. In the case of pills and capsules, the studies demonstrate that only about 15-20% is absorbed. The steps outlined above, however, should help to significantly slow down any further deterioration or loss of motion in your joints, along with help to alleviate pain.