As a practicing physical therapist, I come across a lot of people with joint pain. Conventional medical wisdom tells us that aging plus wear and tear is a one-way street leading to the inevitable breakdown of joints over time. And that we are, in a sense, powerless over this process. But what if we could do something to slow or even reverse this process? Many people are now becoming aware that our choices matter, particularly when it comes to the food we eat.
Joint pain has numerous etiologies, including injury, infection, arthritis, and disease. And they all share one common factor: inflammation. The inflammation associated with joint pain comes in two varieties, acute and chronic.
Acute inflammation is usually the result of injury or infection and has telltale signs that include heat, pain, redness, and swelling. This type of inflammation begins quickly, is necessary for healing, and may last for a few days or weeks. With proper treatment, acute inflammation resulting from injury and infection will completely resolve.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is less obvious to the untrained eye. It is an ongoing, long-term, systemic condition that can result in many diverse symptoms, such as fatigue, skin rashes, muscle aches, joint pain, and brain fog, making it difficult to treat. The joint pain and inflammation that develop with arthritis and disease tend to be chronic in nature. NSAIDs and physical therapy are often prescribed with varying results. Diet is not regularly considered a treatment option, but as we are learning, it may be more important than we once thought.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is at the forefront of the inflammatory process.
Processed and fast foods, which make up about 60% of the American diet, are filled with shelf-stabilizing and taste-enhancing chemicals that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS), but the cumulative, long-term effects of these food additives are not well known.
Most processed and fast foods also contain industrial seed oils, which can cause an imbalance in the ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids resulting in inflammation.
Studies show that red and processed meats are associated with an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and stroke, all of which have underlying inflammatory components.
With so many foods related to inflammation, you may be wondering, “What can I eat?” Luckily, once you ditch the inflammatory foods, the door to a whole food, plant-based diet will open and you will discover many new, delicious foods to eat. Your taste buds will shift and you will notice how sweet something like an apple can be!
Coupling dietary changes with physical therapy exercises is an ideal treatment plan for the prevention, protection, and reduction of joint pain.
Base your diet on eating a variety of whole, plant-based foods that are nutrient dense and full of antioxidants. Antioxidants work by reducing reactive oxygen species (ROS), also called free radicals. Free radicals are a normal byproduct of metabolism, which can accumulate over time and promote inflammation. Excellent sources of antioxidant-rich foods are:
Filling up your plate with antioxidant-rich plant foods will go a long way in taming inflammation and, as a result, reducing chronic joint pain. A physical therapist can prescribe exercises to correct muscle imbalances and protect the surrounding structures of a painful joint; coupling dietary changes with physical therapy exercises is an ideal treatment plan for the prevention, protection, and reduction of joint pain.
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