Joint pain and stiffness

Reviewed by Dr. Susan E. Brown, PhD

Causes of joint pain and stiffness

Joint pain, aches or stiffness can occur at any age, and may affect almost any joint, including the knees, hips, neck, back, elbows, ankles, feet, toes, hands and fingers. Joint issues are commonly associated with:

  • Previous injuries
  • Repetitive use and/or overuse
  • Arthritis, especially osteoarthritis
  • Hormonal imbalances, both reproductive or adrenal (stress)
  • Weight

Joint discomfort can include stiffness, achiness, soreness, burning, throbbing, or a “grating” sensation. Women also report loss of flexibility and mobility at the affected site, which may also feel swollen and hot. Pain may be persistent or it can come and go. Joint pain can sometimes be traced to bursitis, gout, carpal tunnel syndrome, or muscle injury, so it’s important to rule those out early on.

Is your joint pain caused by osteoarthritis?

Joint pain in women in perimenopause or menopause is frequently diagnosed as osteoarthritis. Conventional practitioners tend to offer two treatment paths: prescribing increasingly stronger drugs for pain, or waiting until the problem gets bad enough that surgery is required. For most of us, neither approach is acceptable.

While many women first notice this issue during midlife when reproductive hormones fluctuate naturally, joint pain is not an inevitable sign of aging. In fact, unless your joint is seriously deteriorated, or cartilage, tendons or ligaments are damaged or missing, you have an excellent opportunity to find joint pain relief if you address its most common source: inflammation. But it is important to take action sooner rather than later.

What does inflammation have to do with joint pain?

Chronic inflammation is the fire that burns beneath most kinds of joint aches and pains. A healthy immune system triggers the inflammatory response when it needs to deal with occasional threats like injury or infection. But in many women, the inflammatory response stays switched on indefinitely. This chronic, low-grade inflammation gradually tears down tissues — including those in your joints — and prevents cell regeneration and repair.

Chronic inflammation can be fueled by a diet high in refined carbohydrates, fried and fast foods, and sugars. A high-carb diet promotes elevated levels of insulin, which spreads inflammation. On top of that, women may have undiagnosed allergies or sensitivities to certain foods that contribute to inflammation when those foods are eaten.

Factors that set off the chronic inflammation process include:

1. Joint pain and hormonal imbalance

Many women first report joint pain when they are in perimenopause or menopause. Midlife hormone shifts, especially fluctuating estrogen levels, can have a deep impact on your joints. Since estrogen has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, as it declines naturally it can increase the symptoms of chronic inflammation, including joint pain. If you have joint pain and PMS, or symptoms of perimenopause or menopause, find out more about restoring balance to your reproductive hormones.

2. Joint pain and adrenal stress

Cortisol, the hormone released in response to stress, works as an inflammatory agent, which is usually okay — if you’re experiencing a relatively short episode of stress. But when you have sustained stress — the kind many of us are experiencing — it can cause inflammation to spread and/or become chronic. If you have joint pain and high stress, find out more about restoring balance to adrenal hormones.

3. Joint pain and earlier injuries

Previous joint injuries can be ground zero for chronic inflammation, especially if the injury never healed well. Joint pain and stiffness in the area years later can occur due to chronic inflammation.

4. Joint pain and weight

Women who are overweight have much higher risk of knee osteoarthritis, mostly because the extra pounds place additional stress on the knee joint. Extra body fat in general can lead to additional inflammation and joint pain at any location.

Natural approach to joint pain

Resolving joint aches and pains at their source means addressing the chronic inflammation process that‘s underway in your body. We recommend a combination approach that includes:

  • Adding antioxidants to help cut down on the oxidative effects of diet and other factors. Get more antioxidants from supplements and from foods that contain them naturally.
  • Eating more “alkalizing foods” to help offset foods that are acid-forming in your body. The list of acid-forming foods parallels that of inflammatory foods pretty closely — fried and fast foods, sugary sweets, and white flour foods.
  • Enjoying gentle exercise to help keep the joints flexible and lubricated. Even when your joints hurt, it’s crucially important to keep them moving. Consider slow, calming practices like yoga, t-ai chi and walking.

In addition, lifestyle changes that encourage stress relief can help regulate cortisol levels and reduce your inflammatory burden.

Last Updated: August 9, 2021

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