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Why am I experiencing joint pain? Finding the root cause

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Article written by  Dr Sarah Brewer

Date published  05 September 2022

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We've all experienced slightly achy, stiff joints first thing in the morning, after exercising or sitting in one position for too long – but what about when things get more serious?

Don't just put it down to age and ignore your pain. Preventative measures and early intervention can protect us all from future problems.

Ascertaining your risk

Chronic (long-term) pain affects one in five adults in New Zealand (totalling about 770,000 people) and this figure is expected to rise with an increasingly ageing population.1

As we get older, our joints have had more time to get worn down and degenerate – and although joint problems and pain are far from a foregone conclusion, some people are more at risk than others.

This includes those with an existing health condition that can lead to painful joints, including osteoarthritis2 (OA), rheumatoid arthritis3 (RA), gout, lupus, fibromyalgia, strains, sprains and existing injury; someone with a family history of joint disease; your gender (women are more likely to have any type of arthritic condition); smoking; stress; being overweight (this puts increased pressure on weight-bearing joints) and eating a diet high in processed and sugary foods which can, over time, lead to chronic inflammation in the body. Even your job can put you more at risk.4

Clearly, you have more control over some of these factors than others.

Simple steps to avoid inflammation

Diet is one of the easiest areas to change and control. Cutting back on foods known to increase inflammation and replacing with more fresh fruit and vegetables, making fish and/or pulses your main source of protein and snacking on nuts and seeds (like chia and flax) can significantly improve joint health and pain.

Foods known to trigger the release of inflammatory chemicals (cytokines) which can worsen pain include processed sugars (in biscuits, pastries, sweets, breakfast cereals), saturated fats (found in cheese, crisps, processed meat products, red meat), trans fats (in fast food, processed food, biscuits, pastries and some margarines) and refined carbohydrates (white bread, rice, potatoes, chips).

Some people with arthritis find their symptoms are sensitive to either gluten (found in wheat, barley and rye) or casein found in dairy produce, and you may find temporarily eliminating these food groups from your diet (individually at first) can help relieve symptoms. If this is the case, do seek nutritional advice if you decide to eliminate particular foods long-term.

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Less stressed joints

Interestingly, stress is implicated in joint pain. We all come under stress from time to time, and for most of us it's a normal and necessary part of life. If it goes unchecked, however, chronic (long-term) stress can have physical effects, playing a part in the inflammation that leads to pain by releasing cytokines into the body.

Of course, if you have a painful arthritic condition this will already be making you stressed and so it becomes something of a vicious cycle.

How you deal with stress is a personal choice: some find mindfulness and meditation helpful, but one simple and effective stress-reliever is exercise. Not only will this help take your mind off your stress, it will also help to release endorphins (chemicals that can relieve pain and stress), reduce inflammation and help to maintain the range of motion in your joints.

Significantly, if you are overweight, exercise should also help you shed a few pounds and that will take some of the strain off your joints, too.

Choose a form of exercise you enjoy, so it is not a chore. The range of options is vast, from walking, biking or swimming through to salsa, yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates. Making some form of exercise a part of your daily routine should help you feel less stressed, keep your weight down and help you sleep better.

It's also important to ensure you drink enough fluids, and to select foods with a high-water content like fruit and vegetables. Your joint cartilage has a high-water content and dehydration (which can occur from not drinking enough fluids, or through sweating) can aggravate existing joint symptoms and increase pain.

If your joint cartilage remains well lubricated, it is better able to fulfil its role as a shock absorber that stops bones grating together, to reduce friction and pain. Unfortunately, our sense of thirst diminishes with age, so older people are potentially more at risk of becoming dehydrated.

Treat it quick

If you're suffering with persistently painful joints, you need to see your GP. As joint pain is an infuriatingly vague symptom, go armed with a detailed record of your symptoms, logging where the pain is, when it is worse (first thing in the morning? After eating certain foods or drinks? After exercise?) and what it feels like (dull and achy or hot and intense? Does it feel like your bones are grating against each other etc.?)

In addition, does it get better after rest? Is there any activity the pain/stiffness prevents you from doing?

Let your doctor know if there is a history of joint problems like OA, RA or gout in your family, or whether you have injured an affected joint in the past.

Based on your symptoms your doctor can advise how to proceed, in the short-term possibly prescribing painkilling anti-inflammatory medication but potentially following up with blood tests and, if necessary, further investigations such as an X-ray or MRI scan.

If you are diagnosed with a joint condition, then the earlier the diagnosis is made, the better protected you are from ongoing pain and chronic inflammation if it is left untreated.

Healthy limbs for life

Nobody wants the misery of sore, swollen, achy and painful joints getting in the way of their life. Make a few minor lifestyle adjustments and you can hopefully help to alleviate, and avoid, future pain and discomfort.

In addition to the above advice, also ensure that you're getting enough sleep (regularly getting under six hours is defined as sleep deprivation). As well as regular exercise, another tip is to soak in a bath containing muscle-relaxing magnesium flakes, which aids muscle relaxation and improved sleep.

Ultimately, looking after yourself and taking steps to protect your body from inflammation should help you on your way to a life with fewer aches and pains.

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About Dr Sarah Brewer

Dr Sarah Brewer holds degrees in Natural Sciences, Surgery and Medicine from the University of Cambridge. Having worked as a GP and hospital doctor, Dr Sarah now holds an MSc in Nutritional Medicine from the University of Surrey and specialises in nutrition. She is also an award-winning writer and author.

drsarahbrewer.com