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Joint pain is one of the most commonly reported health conditions, with one in five adults of 18–44 years of age, 30% of adults between 45–64 years, and about half of the adults aged 65–74 years and over suffering from this discomfort, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1)
The pain may emanate from tendons or bursae surrounding the joint, or ligaments, cartilage, and bone within the joint itself. It may represent joint inflammation as well.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that almost 15 million US adults live with severe joint pain related to arthritis. (2)
The two main forms of arthritis that can cause joint pain are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
According to the American College of Rheumatology, OA stems from the gradual breakdown of the cushioning cartilage which serves as shock absorbers for the joints around commonly used joints like the wrists, hands, hips, and knees. (3)
Rheumatoid arthritis is a progressively worsening inflammatory condition that affects about 1.5 million Americans as reported by the Arthritis Foundation and is more prevalent among women than men. (4)
Causes of Joint Pain
Joint pain can be linked to many types of injuries or medical conditions. Whether the pain is the result of arthritis, bursitis near the joint, or associated muscle pain, joint pain can be very bothersome and can be physically debilitating.
Some possible culprits for joint pain are:
- Autoimmune medical disorders like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus
- Chondromalacia Patellae
- Crystals in the joint such as gout (especially found in the big toe) and CPPD arthritis (pseudogout)
- Infections caused by a virus
- Injury, such as a fracture
- Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
- Septic arthritis (joint infection)
- Over-use, overload, or trauma-causing strains and sprains
Signs and Symptoms of Joint Pain
The Arthritis Foundation says joint pain related to arthritis is most likely to develop in one or more of the following areas, like the neck and top of the back/spine, jaw, knees, hips, the lower back, back of the legs, shoulders (the ball and socket joints), wrists, hands, fingers, ankles, feet, heels and toes. (5)
The pain can range from mild to severe and may be accompanied by the following symptoms:
- Local warmth in one or more joints
- Swelling in one or more joints
- Tenderness in one or more joints
- Stiffness in one or more joints
- Loss of range of motion of the affected joint, or gradual immobility
- Pain can be aggravated by motion, pressure, or weight-bearing resistance with activity
However, joint pain is rarely an emergency. More often than not, mildly aching joints can be successfully managed at home.
Treating Joint Pain at Home
Here are a few natural home remedies to help you with joint pain and ease the discomfort.
1. Massage the affected area
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases reports that when done by a trained professional, massage can help control pain, increase joint motion, and improve muscle and tendon flexibility. (6)
Moreover, massage therapy helps relieve joint pain by improving circulation and soothing inflammation.
A study presented at the American Massage Therapy Association National Convention reports that therapeutic massage can work as a conjunctive treatment to alleviate joint pain and positively affect the physiological systems of RA patients by attenuating the deteriorating effects of the disease. (7)
Another 2013 study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice shows that patients with RA in the upper limbs benefited from moderate pressure massage therapy. (8)
How to do:
- To massage the affected joint area, use warm oil like coconut, olive, mustard, castor or garlic oil and apply gentle pressure while massaging.
- You can even consult a professional massage therapist for maximum efficiency and benefits.
2. Apply hot and cold compresses
Alternating hot and cold compresses can also help ease joint pain. Heat therapy helps decrease pain, increase blood flow and relax sore muscles and joints. Cold therapy, on the other hand, reduces inflammation and numbs the areas around the affected joint.
A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine reports that using hydrotherapy along with the usual rehabilitation training can engender additional improvement in terms of pain and knee joint range of motion (ROM). (9)
Another 2017 study published in the Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy found that arthritic patients receiving hydrotherapy had better performance for knee flexor and extensor strength, knee flexor power, and knee extensor endurance. (10)
How to use:
- Take some ice cubes and a hot water bottle.
- Wrap both compresses in separate towels before using them. They should not be applied directly to the skin.
- Place the hot compress on the affected area for about three minutes.
- Remove the compress and immediately put a cold compress in its place for about one minute.
- Repeat the process for 15 to 20 minutes, a few times daily until you get relief.
Note: Do not use heat therapy if the affected area is red, hot, and irritated, or if your sensation is impaired. Do not use cold therapy if you have circulatory problems.
3. Drink turmeric milk
Turmeric is an excellent Ayurvedic remedy for joint pain. It contains an active ingredient called curcumin with potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers compared the effectiveness of this compound to ibuprofen and found that curcumin was as effective as ibuprofen for pain relief in patients with knee osteoarthritis. (11)
These findings were further corroborated by a 2014 study published in Clinical Interventions in Aging, which found the therapeutic effect of curcumin extracts comparable to that of ibuprofen in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis. (12)
How to use:
- Mix one teaspoon of turmeric powder and a little honey in a glass of warm milk. Drink it daily, at least for a few days.
- Another option is to take 250 to 500 mg turmeric capsules three times daily until the pain begins to subside, and you are satisfied with the results.
Note: Talk to your doctor before including either of these remedies in your regular routine as turmeric can interfere with certain medications, such as blood thinners, and may worsen gallbladder problems.
4. A cup of ginger tea
Ginger is an excellent natural remedy for muscle and joint pain, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. Several research studies have highlighted its benefits on pain and inflammation.
A study published in Osteoarthritis and Cartilage found that ginger extract was as effective as ibuprofen in the first treatment period of a cross-over study. (13)
Similarly, the results of a 2002 animal study suggest that ginger can help relieve rheumatoid arthritis associated with joint pain in rats. Ginger was shown to reduce inflammation when taken in high doses for four weeks. (14)
A study published in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand in 2015 reports that the topical application of ginger extract has an inhibitory effect on knee osteoarthritis. Participants applied ginger extract three times per day for 12 weeks and experienced reduced levels of pain and other symptoms. (15)
How to use:
- Drink ginger tea, or include fresh ginger root or dried ginger powder in your daily diet. To prepare ginger tea, cut up a small piece of ginger root, boil it in a cup of water for 10 minutes and strain it. To improve the taste, you can sweeten it with honey.
- Another option is to mix equal amounts of ginger, turmeric, and fenugreek powder. Take one teaspoon of this mixture daily in the morning and evening until you are satisfied with the results.
5. Cayenne pepper may be beneficial
Cayenne pepper contains a compound called capsaicin with natural analgesic or pain-relieving properties and, hence, is very effective in the treatment of joint pain.
In a 2010 study published in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, researchers found that applying a gel containing 0.0125 percent capsaicin helped alleviate mild to moderate pain in women suffering from knee osteoarthritis. (16)
A 2014 study published in Progress in Drug Research found that the topical application of capsaicin, four times a day, to be moderately effective in reducing pain intensity for up to 20 weeks regardless of the site of application as well as dose.
This effect was observed in clinical or radiologically defined OA patients suffering from moderate to severe pain among whom capsaicin was found to be well tolerated. (17)
In the latest 2018 study published in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, researchers further reiterate the favorable effect of capsaicin in the treatment of OA due to its anti-inflammatory nature. (18)
How to use:
- Slightly heat one-half cup of coconut oil. Mix in two tablespoons of cayenne pepper powder. Apply it on the affected area, leave it on for 20 minutes and then rinse it off. Repeat a few times a day until you get relief from the pain.
- Alternatively, you can use a capsaicin cream topically on the affected area daily.
Note: Cayenne may initially cause a burning sensation. Do not apply it on irritated or ruptured skin as well as open wounds.
6. A warm Epsom salt bath
Joint pain is often associated with low levels of magnesium. Epsom salt baths work to make up for this deficit as they facilitate easy absorption of magnesium through the skin.
Moreover, magnesium helps reduce inflammation and aids in cellular detoxification.
How to do:
- Mix two cups of Epsom salt in warm bath water.
- Soak in it for about 20 minutes.
- Repeat three times a week until you get relief from your joint pain.
7. Dab olive oil to the affected surface
Olive oil is beneficial for reducing pain and inflammation in the joints.
A study published in Nature reports that olive oil contains a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory agent that inhibits the activity of cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes, which are responsible for inflammation in the body. (20)
Along the same lines, another 2013 study published in Current Pharmaceutical Design reports that the compound called oleocanthal found in extra-virgin olive oil prevents the production of COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes, thereby keeping body’s inflammatory responses in check. (21)
Another 2013 study published in the Indian Journal of Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy reports that topical application of extra-virgin olive oil had a mitigating effect on the symptoms of patients diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis, which was comparable to the topical application of an NSAI. (22)
How to use:
- For topical use, massage the painful joint area with warm olive oil, 2–3 times a day.
- For consumption, eat 1 to 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil on a daily basis to fight inflammation from within.
8. Consume fenugreek seeds
Owing to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, fenugreek has emerged as a popular ingredient for treating joint pains at home. It is particularly beneficial for those suffering from arthritis.
The findings of a 2012 study published in the journal Inflammation extend support to the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-arthritic activities of fenugreek. (23)
Another study published in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology in 2016 reports that petroleum ether extract of fenugreek seeds exhibit significant anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic activities which are due to the presence of linoleic and linoleic acids. (24)
How to use:
- Consume one teaspoon of finely ground fenugreek seeds followed by a glass of lukewarm water every morning to reap its benefits and continue following this remedy until you get satisfactory results.
- Alternatively, you can simply soak one teaspoon of fenugreek seeds in water overnight and eat them the next morning.
- You can also massage the affected joint area with fenugreek oil.
9. Try Acupuncture technique
Acupuncture is another alternative treatment for joint pain, made popular by traditional Chinese medicine. It uses thin needles to stimulate certain points in the body to relieve symptoms. This follows that acupuncture helps palliate pain by stimulating the release of natural pain-fighting endorphins. (25)
A 2014 study published in the journal Acupuncture in Medicine concludes that manual and electroacupuncture causes a significant improvement in the symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knee, either on its own or as an adjunct therapy, with no loss of benefit after one month. (26)
The effectiveness of acupuncture can be gauged by the fact it is recommended by the World Health Organization for the treatment of over 100 different conditions. (27)
Note: If you want to explore this treatment method, be sure to find a licensed and certified acupuncturist in your vicinity.
Preventing Joint Pain
- Keep your body weight within a healthy range to lessen stress on the joints.
- Up the intake of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and fish to name a few.
- Make sure you are getting enough minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, in your diet.
- Don’t spring into intensive exercise all of sudden. Instead loosen up your joints, muscles, and ligaments by stretching before exercising. This helps keep the joints more flexible thereby preventing shock injuries.
- Wear protective equipment while playing sports.
- Be careful when lifting heavy objects.
- Listen to your body. Don’t overextend yourself when exercising and, take a break from a rigorous activity or discontinue it altogether, the minute you feel your joints are becoming painful.
- Avoid running on concrete surfaces.
- Wear high quality comfortable, properly-fitted and supportive footwear to avoid putting undue strain on your joints.
Additional Tips for Managing Joint Pain Discomfort
- You can use topical pain relievers or take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation.
- Try to stay physically active and follow a fitness program focusing on moderate exercise. Exercise with gentle motion such as Tai chi and yoga can be well tolerated and beneficial.
- Always make sure that the equipment you are using to exercise or do sports with is correct for your ability level and size.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol when suffering from any kind of pain.
- In case you experience severe pain bordering on being unbearable, immobilize the joint by using a splint or a brace by the time you get professional help.
When to See a Doctor
Seeking your doctor’s consultation becomes imperative if your joint pain is accompanied by the following symptoms:
- Tenderness around the joint
- The affected area is warm to touch
More importantly, you will need immediate medical assistance if the joint pain is resulting from an injury and is accompanied by:
- Joint deformity
- Joint immobility or locking of the joint
- Intense pain
- Sudden swelling
Seek medical advice for unexplained joint pain that does not improve. A definite diagnosis may be required for proper care.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Mark Miller (MD)
Joint pain typically presents as just that. There may or may not have been an associated injury. Patients can often localize their pain, which is helpful.
I often ask them to show me with one finger where it hurts. Swelling may also be present. This often signifies a more severe injury. Patients may also have mechanical symptoms such as locking or catching. Instability, or “giving way” may be associated with a ligament tear.
Yes, especially in conditions such as osteoarthritis (aka degenerative joint disease). Patients may describe worsening of pain when it is rainy or there is high humidity. I have had many people tell me that they knew that a storm was coming because they were having increased pain.
In general, low impact aerobic exercises are best. Closed chain exercises (where the foot is fixed to the ground or a peddle) is often better than open chain exercises (for example kicking out with a weight machine). In general, swimming, cycling, and elliptical trainers are better than running on a hard surface.
Although food differences are not clear enough for recommendations, it is important to keep your weight within ideal parameters.
I generally recommend ice for swelling, after injury, and before exercise and heat after.
If patients have fragile bone then vitamin D is important, otherwise a multivitamin and/or a balanced diet is best.
Joint pain is a common discomfort that can stem from a variety of underlying reasons. It can be linked to many types of injuries or medical conditions that may or may not require treatment depending upon the severity of the condition.
Whether the pain is the result of arthritis, bursitis near the joint, or associated muscle pain, it can be very bothersome and even physically debilitating. If not addressed properly, the condition can get aggravated and lead to serious complications.
So, while home treatment may suffice to relieve minor joint pain, you should seek medical help if it keeps coming back, becomes worse, or is accompanied by other worrisome symptoms.