Nearly everyone experiences joint pain at some point in their lifetime, often caused by an injury (like a sprain) or a medical condition (like arthritis).
According to WebMD, one-third of adults who participated in a national survey reported suffering from joint pain over the last 30 days, with knee pain being the leading complaint followed by shoulders and hips. This just goes to show that aching joints are a lot more common than we all might expect.
While every individual case is different and would need to be assessed by a doctor to determine proper treatment, managing joint pain with medication and physical therapy are only two of the main options we have today. I spoke to two naturopathic doctors who gave me some expert information on a few plant-based alternatives below.
Cayenne — that reddish spice we typically use to pump up the flavor of our favorite foods — can be applied topically to the skin where the joint pain occurs. It can be purchased as a standardized cream/ointment or you can make your own paste by combining half a cup of flour with a gram of cayenne and a bit of carrier oil of your choice.
“Cayenne is a rubefacient, meaning it increases circulation to wherever its applied and helps clear any inflammation from the joint,” says Dr. Courtney Holmberg. “It also increases production of substance P, which lowers pain transmission. “
It’s recommended to first apply oil to the skin since cayenne can cause irritation, or you can simply go with the ointment option if you know you have sensitive skin. ”If joint pain is caused by a recent injury, avoid using cayenne as it will increase heat and inflammation,” says Dr. Holmberg. “It should only be used for chronic joint pain. ”
Most of us know licorice as a flavor added to certain foods and beverages, but the root of this plant actually contains chemicals that can be used to make medicine. For those who suffer from joint pain, consuming it as a supplement or as an herbal tea may help to reduce swelling and inflammation.
“It works by supporting the body’s production of our natural steroid, cortisol, which suppresses the immune system and improves pain associated with inflammation,” says Dr. Holmberg. “The active component, glycyrrhizin, has been shown to mildly increase blood pressure, and should therefore be avoided in anyone with hypertension, or those with a suppressed immune system.”
The stinging nettle is a tall perennial native to Europe and Asia with roots and above ground plant parts that have a long history of being used for medicinal purposes. Like cayenne, the plant was traditionally used by applying it topically to the skin to act as a rubifacient, but today it is most often used in tea, tincture or encapsulated form.
“When these forms are consumed orally, they provide us with anti-inflammatory compounds which are helpful for pain relief,” says Dr. Jenna McNamee. “It relieves inflammation by suppressing certain inflammatory cytokines (such as TNF-alpha and IL-1B), which are known to cause painful swelling.”
Turmeric is a popular spice commonly used to boost the flavor of certain foods and is well known for its use in curry. Similar to stinging nettle, it blocks inflammatory cytokines and enzymes to relieve joint pain and inflammation.
“Turmeric’s active constituent, curcumin, is actually known as a COX-2 inhibitor, which means that it blocks the enzyme known as cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2),” says Dr. McNamee. “COX-2 plays a role in regulating inflammatory cells.”
As far as how to use it, it turns out the type you may already have sitting on your spice rack isn’t enough. “It should be used in a nutrient extract form for strongest pain-relieving effects, as whole turmeric only has a very small percent of curcumin — the active anti-inflammatory component,” says Dr. McNamee. ”You will want a product that is standardized to the amount of curcumin to make sure you’re getting an effective amount of the active component.”
Ginger is one of the oldest and still most popular herbs used today as a natural remedy for the treatment of a variety of conditions. The anti-inflammatory effect produced by components called gingerols are what make it an ideal potential treatment for joint pain.
“Gingerols suppress pro-inflammatory compounds that can be produced by cells that make up a joint’s cartilage and lubricating lining,” says Dr. McNamee. ”They also reduce the production of free radicals, which can also contribute to joint pain.”
Ginger is extremely versatile and can be consumed in a number of forms to get the anti-inflammatory benefits. Use fresh ginger root in certain recipes that call for it, as an herbal tea, in tincture or in encapsulated form.
When pain strikes in the knees, shoulders, hips, ankles, or other joints in the body, continuing on with your regular day can be difficult — maybe even impossible. Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing joint pain that’s interfering with everyday life and discuss any of the above natural remedies you may be interested in trying.