Natural Pain Relief for Arthritis in the Knees

The pain of arthritis in the knees is very bothersome, even sometimes it could be severe enough to interfere with your daily activities. About 76.2 million of people in this country suffer from chronic pain, and more than 50% have to do with arthritis, according to NCHS (the National Center for Health Statistics). OTC and prescription pain medicines are available. But if you’re looking for something ‘without pills’, the following natural pain relief options may help.

Heat and cold therapy

Heat and cold therapy has long been used as a natural pain reliever for various conditions, including arthritis. This simply, effective strategy is often helpful enough to relieve mild pains and aches. Plus, there is almost no downside since the therapy is less likely to cause side effects.

However, it’s also important to understand whether cold or heat is the best choice for your condition.

Heat is a natural way for pain relief, it is relaxing. Soaking in a steaming, warm bathtub or shower can help you fell soothed and comforted. It naturally eases your tense, sore, and stiff muscles – as well as soothes joint pain associated with arthritis. It boosts your blood flow, improving your body’s circulation.

Typically it’s best for joint pain with stiffness. But it’s not recommended when your knee joint is already hot, red or irritated. Applying heat on inflamed (hot, irritated) joint could be counterproductive because heat increases blood flow.

Cold relieves sensation of burning and inflammation. It can help numb areas affected by arthritis. So it’s best for knee joint pain with inflammation or redness. It’s not recommended when you joint is stiff.

Applying a cold pack (a bag of frozen veggies or an ice pack) on a swollen knee joint is also helpful to restore it back down to size. And when the size of swollen joint decreases, so does the pain.

Again, use heat or cold therapy properly! Make sure the temperature is not uncomfortably extreme. Temperature extremes may cause skin damage or other negative effects.

For more guidance about what to remember to use heat and cold therapies safely, see more in this section!

What you eat matters

A school of thought believes that certain foods play a role to help deal with arthritis pain. Is it fact or myth?

Unfortunately there is still no clear cut answer. But although the link between diet and arthritis is not fully understood yet, many people with arthritis find that what they eat often have an effect on controlling their arthritis symptoms.

A number of studies continue to comprehensively observe whether certain foods /spices may have a role in soothing arthritis joint pain and stiffness – and if so, how they work! Here are a few ones that get the intention.

Tart cherries

One research in 2013, published in the Osteoarthritis and Cartilage showed that tart cherry might have a positive effect to help improve mild to moderate knee pain associated with osteoarthritis [1]. Anthocyanin, an antioxidant, found in tart cherries is probably the key answer. This potent compound has anti-inflammatory effects.

Fatty fish

Mackerel, tuna, salmon, and trout are some fatty fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (anti-inflammatory property). Adding them into your diet, 2-3 times a week, is a good way to help fight inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids are also available in supplement (if you are not a fan of fish), ask your doctor!

Garlic

This allium family spice contains a potent compound called diallyl disulfide. Regularly eating garlic or other foods from the allium family (e.g. leeks and onions) might help reduce the risk of osteoarthritis, according to some studies [2]. Diallyl disulfide is thought to have an effect in blocking cartilage-damaging enzymes.

Turmeric

Curcumin, a key potent compound found in turmeric, may do wonders for pain associated with inflammation, including arthritis pain. A review in 2012, published in IJMS (the International Journal of Molecular Sciences) suggested that curcumin could provide positive effects in controlling chronic inflammatory-related joint disorder.

But turmeric should be used carefully. It could also be counterproductive if used improperly. For more information about pain relief with turmeric, see this article!

Cruciferous family vegetables

These include cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. These vegetables are high in a compound called sulforaphane, which is essential to help protect the cartilage of your knee joint. According to a study involving mice in 2013, published in the Journal Arthritis and Rheumatism, showed that sulforaphane might effectively slow down cartilage damage due to osteoarthritis by blocking certain enzymes that contribute to joint destruction [3].

Although more studies are required (it’s an early study), this finding is promising. Moreover, it’s not bad idea to add cruciferous family vegetables to your stir-fry or salad, they are high in nutritional properties (e.g. fiber, vitamins, and minerals) – they’re healthy goodies.

The power of vitamin C

Vitamin C is a strong antioxidant. A number of studies suggest that vitamin C plays a role to reduce the risk of osteoarthritis. One study in 2011 published by the University of South Florida showed that participants who took vitamin C supplements had 11 percent lower risk of developing osteoarthritis [4].

Also, vitamin C is involved to make collagen. Collagen is not only essential for your skin health, but also important to keep your joint strong and healthy since it is part of cartilage.

Vitamin C is easy to be found in many various foods (e.g. kiwi, citrus fruits, and some vegetables). It’s also available in supplement – but ask your doctor first, because high dose of vitamin C could be counterproductive!

There is no magic formula when it comes to natural pain relief for arthritis. Although foods and spices mentioned above have a few evidences to support the claim, it’s still necessary to stay with healthy eating with variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and other healthy goodies.

Your diet is one of the most important pillars to keep your weight off. Maintaining weight is crucial for people with arthritis.

In addition, we are often suggested that alcohol is bad for our overall health. The same goes for your arthritis prognosis. Drinking alcohol may help soothe the pain for a while, but actually it will worsen the problem. Too much alcohol may also impair the body’s ability to repair the damaged cells. Moreover, it adds more excess calories in your diet (bad for your weight control). So, restrict or (if possible) avoid alcohol!

Stay at a healthy weight

Weight does have an effect to your joints, especially knee joints. More excess weight you gain, more pressure and load on your knee. In fact, being obese /overweight is one of the most common factors that contribute to knee pain.

Also, more excess fats you gain may stimulate a number of inflammatory mediators — more fats, more inflammation. So if you’re not at your healthy scale, weight loss will help a lot to help provide pain relief for arthritis in your knees and control the disease better.

Even losing just 10%of the body weight can sometimes carry a significant difference. For instance, each pound of excess weight you lose may significantly decrease the load on your knees by about 2-3 pounds or more.

Need more reasons? Here are other health advantages of weight loss for people with arthritis:

  1. Better joint health in long term. Being at your best scale appears to boost the overall health of your knee joint function. One study suggests more excess pounds you lose are equivalent to the improvement of mechanical pressures inside knee joints [5].
  2. Sleeping well at night. Sleep problems can be attributed by many factors, one of them could be musculoskeletal pain. And sleep deprivation can make the pain worse. Weight loss (when you’re being overweight /obese) can promote better sleep, so can arthritis pain.
  3. Good for overall health and quality of your life. It’s undeniable that healthy weight plays a role to promote health and wellness. And if your body is generally fit, this can help a lot to deal with your arthritis symptoms and manage the disease better.
  4. To help keep heart healthy, which is important for anyone especially people with arthritis. Inflammatory arthritis (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and gout) increases the risk of heart disease. And this risk could be much worse if you’re out of shape.
  5. Weight loss also has been shown to help reduce costs. Being at your best shape is important to make your arthritis flare-ups less likely. This means cost savings since you will have fewer medications for your arthritis.

Please remember, avoid any extreme ways when it comes to losing weight! Reduce your excess weight gradually to keep your weight off in long term. If you shed pounds very fast, you’re more likely to regain weight afterwards. Also, shedding pounds too fast will lose water, muscle, and bone instead of fat.

Exercise

Arthritis keen pain may improve with some specific exercises. Exercise is also helpful to improve flexibility, stiffness, and the overall health of your knee joints.

When you’re ready for exercise, here are a few examples to explore.

This exercise can help improve your balance. With better balance and stability, you reduce the impacts on your knees.

Stand straight against a wall. Raise one of your legs to the side, keep your toe slightly in or pointing forward – also, keep straight (don’t lean to stationary side)! Then lower leg down. Do this 15-20 times for each leg.

It’s aimed to help ease joint stiffness and improve the strength of your leg muscles.

Use a chair or something else to support your body. Stand up straight behind the chair and make sure both knees are aligned. Lift one foot and bend the knee toward the buttocks, hold a few seconds and then lower down. Do about 10-25 times on each side!

This knee exercise is intended to strengthen muscles surrounding your knees as well as improve the flexibility of the knees. It is also great to improve your posture.

Seat and then cross your ankles while contracting your thighs (see picture above), hold about 10-30 seconds. Repeat the same exercise for another side. Do 3-4 sets for each side. You can also try this with your legs outstretched.

Your glutes is vital to ease the load on the knees, making knee strain less likely. They are one of your body’s workhorses. So it’s important to keep them strong.

If you’re able for lying exercises, do the following steps. Lie down on left /right side. Bend your knees (about 9 degrees) with hips, feet, and shoulders aligned. Then lift one of your knees (top knee) as far as you can, and then lower the knee slowly. Do 10-25 times for each knee!

Your hamstrings are also vital to support the range of motion of your knees. Poor flexibility of the hamstrings will make your knees work harder.

Lie down with legs outstretched (on your back). Bend the knees, and grab your right thigh with hands. Slowly pull your right leg toward your chest. Then relax your arms and the knee is pointed straight up. Now move your right leg straight up as much as possible. Slowly release and outreach the leg! Repeat this exercise a few times on each side.

*Images credit to Medicalnewstoday.com

Here are a few important points to remember:

  1. Exercise therapy is more recommended when your knee is ready enough for exercise. It’s usually not recommended during flare-ups. For more guidance, working with your physician is your best bet.
  2. Start your exercise slowly to reduce the risk of injury or other counterproductive effects. Listen your body’s signals, don’t push yourself too hard!
  3. Your training regimes are adjusted accordingly. Sometimes it’s necessary to stop your exercise for a while if your pain or other symptoms get worse. So always pay attention to your arthritis symptoms.

What else to cope with arthritis pain?

Painkillers or anti-inflammatory medications are conventional treatments for arthritis pain in the knees. Since medications carry a number of side effects, don’t rely on them alone.

Prevent, relieve, and manage your stress

What you feel can affect you physically, including arthritis pain. Emotional reactions (feeling extremely stressed or depressed) may factor into worsening arthritis symptoms. They can drive you to become less active (sedentary), cause sleep problems, or inhibit you from committing what you know you need to (e.g. eating right and taking your medications properly). Also, stress can boost certain chemicals in the body that provoke inflammation.

In some cases, stress can be prevented. But it’s inevitable in most cases. Whatever it is, it’s manageable! Here are a few helpful tips:

  1. Take a break during stressful period — give yourself permission to step away from the stressor, even just a few minutes could help a lot! This allows you to get a new perspective or new idea to make your situation less overwhelmed.
  2. Go with regular exercise! In general, sedentary lifestyle may have a role to make stress more likely. Regular exercise can provide benefits your body as well as your mind.
  3. Having social support is important factor to deal with stress. Try to build a good relationship with others.
  4. Turn to your spirituality (religion) for more guidance.
  5. Don’t relieve your stress with bad things (e.g. smoking and alcohol).
  6. Get enough sleep at night. Take a short nap if necessary!
  7. (When you can) take a vacation to help recharge and refresh your mind!

Stop smoking

Tobacco smoke contains lots of harmful substances, which some are bad if you have rheumatoid arthritis (a kind of arthritis that has to do with malfunctions of the body immune system). It is also thought to increase the severity of arthritis.

Experts believe more-severe rheumatoid arthritis is likely to occur in smokers than non-smokers. Smoking may cause remission less likely. It may also interfere with the effectiveness of rheumatoid arthritis medications, making the disease harder to treat.

Smoking makes it harder to engage in activities (exercise), making you become a sedentary lifestyle more likely. It’s also bad for weight control since it’s linked to obesity-related habits such as unhealthy diet. One study shows that smokers are more likely to eat more calories and fats than non-smokers [6].

Use the right shoes!

Your shoes may also have effects on your knee joints. One study from the Rush Medical College Chicago in 2010 showed that using the right shoes was helpful to reduce the load on the knees by about 11-15 % [7].

Choose flexible shoes (e.g. sneakers and flip-flops). For best result, use flexible shoes with arch support.

Alternative therapies

A number of alternative therapies are available to help cope with arthritis and its symptoms, though there is no enough reliable evidence to back them up. The following are probably the most promising ones:

It’s not clear yet whether this Chinese traditional technique works for arthritis. But since it promotes relaxation and tension relief, it’s not bad idea to try this therapy. Furthermore, it’s one of complementary therapies recommended by WHO (the World Health Organization) to help treat more than 100 different conditions.

If you want to use this traditional treatment, ask your doctor first (particularly if you’re taking chemotherapy and blood thinners since the therapy may cause infection and bleeding). Again, it’s a complementary treatment, not to replace your primary treatment. And make sure to only work with a certified, licensed acupuncturist!

This relaxation therapy involves a deep concentration so you gain stress relief, peace, and happiness. It may help for people with painful joints such as arthritis, according to one study from the National Institutes of Health [8].

Compared to other therapies, the study showed that people with arthritis and depression benefitted the most from the practice of mindfulness mediation. It soothes the brain’s response to pain, making pain relief more likely.

Depending on the severity of your arthritis knee pain -- massage therapy may help relieve the pain, improving range of motion and your joint stiffness. It improves muscle tension, allowing your knee joints work better.

Work with an experienced massage therapist (if necessary, ask your physician for a recommendation).

How about herbal supplements?

The same goes for herbal supplements. Although there are many folk remedy claims, scientific evidence on their effectiveness for arthritis is lacking. Also, their quality and safety are not comprehensively monitored by FDA (the US Food and Drug Administration).

Some popular herbs for arthritis pain relief include Ginkgo, Thunder god vine, Stinging nettle, Bromelain, and Boswellia.

Consult your physician before trying any alternative therapies or herbal supplements, because some have drawbacks and side effects — particularly true if you’re taking certain medications for arthritis or other health conditions!

Arthritis can get worse over time, causing serious complications such as serious joint damage. So never forget about your doc — do a routine checkup regularly, at least once a year! Once severe damage occurs, it could be irreversible.

Resources:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23727631
  2. https://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/arthritis-diet/best-foods-for-arthritis/best-foods-for-arthritis-12.php
  3. https://www.webmd.com/osteoarthritis/news/20130828/broccoli-could-help-fight-arthritis
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20707943
  5. https://www.everydayhealth.com/news/reasons-lose-weight-with-arthritis/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5269575/
  7. https://www.everydayhealth.com/arthritis/taking-control-of-arthritis.aspx
  8. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/RA/getthefacts.htm