Painful, stiff, and swollen joints may be a minor problem that comes and goes. Or they might signal a condition like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or gout. But even before you know what's causing the problem, there are ways to get relief.
You can fight joint pain and swelling with over-the counter-meds from the shelves of your local pharmacy. Other things that may help include heating pads, cold packs, and changes to your diet and exercise habits.
If the pain doesn't go away and stops you from doing things you normally do, talk to your doctor. They can help you figure out what's causing your symptoms, and come up with a long-term plan to manage them.
Pills: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen and naproxen reduce the inflammation that can cause joint pain, swelling, and stiffness.
Like any medicine, they have possible risks and side effects. These include:
- Stomach Pain
- Diarrhea or constipation
If you take high doses or use them often and for a long time, NSAIDs may raise your chances of having a heart attack or stroke. Long-term use can also lead to painful stomach ulcers or bleeding.
If your joints hurt, but aren't swollen, it's usually safer to use acetaminophen instead of NSAIDs.
Pain-relieving creams, gels, or patches: These are an option when your pain is only in one or two small areas of your body. You rub a small amount of one of these creams or gels over the joint that hurts. Some of these medications are sold as patches you apply to your skin.
The active ingredients include NSAIDs, lidocaine, and capsaicin (the chemical in hot peppers). You can buy many of them over the counter. If you're taking NSAIDs by mouth, ask your doctor before you also use them on your skin.
Heat: A heating pad can calm a muscle spasm around a joint to lessen pain. Protect your skin from high heat with a towel if necessary. A hot bath can help with joint pain as well. Use heat for at least 15 minutes at a time for best results.
Cold: Apply an ice pack or frozen gel pack to swollen or painful areas for 15 minutes at a time, several times a day. As with heat, it’s a good idea to protect your skin by wrapping the cold pack in a towel.
Rest: This is a good idea when your joint is especially inflamed. But as soon as the swelling and pain lessen, it helps to start moving and strengthening the joint.
Supplements: There's some evidence that glucosamine supplements might help relieve joint pain, but not swelling. But we need more research. Talk to your doctor before you take any over-the-counter supplements, especially if you have other health issues or take other medications.
Each pound you lose means four fewer pounds of pressure on painful, swollen joints like your knees and hips.
When you lose weight, you lose fat, and fewer fat cells could mean fewer hormones that inflame your joints. It also might reduce levels of a waste product called uric acid in your body that can cause joint inflammation (gout).
Still, not everyone should try to lose weight. Talk to your doctor about the right weight range for your body type. One rule of thumb is to shoot for a BMI (Body Mass Index) between 18.5 and 24.9. Work with your doctor to design a weight-loss plan that makes sense for your habits and lifestyle.
Besides being an important part of any weight-loss plan, healthy eating can lessen the inflammation that sometimes causes joint pain. Each day, choose foods from these five healthy food groups:
- Lean protein
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy
Nuts, beans, eggs, skinless chicken, lean meat trimmed of visible fat, and fish are good protein choices. At each meal, cover at least half your plate with vegetables and fruits. Swap out white bread, pasta, and rice for whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, and whole-grain bread.
Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and herring help fight the inflammation that contributes to joint pain. So do nuts, tomatoes, olive oil, and green leafy vegetables.
Exercise is essential to a healthy weight-loss program. But it has other benefits.
It can lessen chronic inflammation as well as stretch and strengthen the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that move and stabilize your joints.
Movement is also good for your cartilage, connective tissue found in your joints. People who can’t move much because of surgery, injury, or illness start to lose cartilage in their joints.
Aerobic exercise like walking, swimming, or biking can reduce inflammation and increase your stamina, allowing you to stay active for longer. Resistance training like weightlifting works to strengthen and stabilize muscles around your joints.
Any movement helps. Yoga, tai chi, and simple stretching can all help lessen pain and inflammation and increase your range of motion.
Aim for a half-hour of low-impact exercise on most days of the week.
American College of Rheumatology: "NSAIDs: Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs."
Argoff, C. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, February 2013.
Arthritis Foundation: “Over-the-Counter Meds Have Risks Too,” “Topical NSAIDs Offer Joint Pain Relief,” “Weight Loss Benefits for Arthritis,” “How Fat Affects Gout,” “8 Natural Therapies for Arthritis Pain.”
Harvard Medical School: "Patient Education Center: Rheumatoid Arthritis."
Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center: "Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment."
The Merck Manual: “Joint Pain: Many Joints,” "Celecoxib," "Diclofenac," "Indomethacin," "Ketoprofen," "Meloxicam."
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Handout on Health: Rheumatoid Arthritis."
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Health Risks of Being Overweight.”
Cleveland Clinic: “Joint Pain,” "Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Medicines (NSAIDs).”
CDC: “Joint Pain and Arthritis,” “Healthy Eating for a Healthy Weight.”
Hackensack Meridian Health: “How Can I Treat My Joint Pain Without Medication?”
Harvard Health Publishing: “Foods that fight inflammation,” “Age-proof your knees,” “Why weight matters when it comes to joint pain.”