There can be lots of causes for joint pain besides the degeneration of cartilage characteristic of osteoarthritis.

But if you suffer from pain in just one joint, or in mostly the bigger joints of your body (hips, knees, shoulders), it’s possible the primary issue is that you’re losing that cartilage cushion that keeps your joints healthy, mobile, and pain-free.

Cartilage Degeneration

Your blood is your body’s nutrient delivery system. Because of that, most parts of your body are supplied with blood directly by their own blood vessels and system of capillaries, bringing nutrients and oxygen and eliminating waste. If the blood supply is cut off for any reason, the tissue on the other end starts to die.

Your cartilage is an exception to this: it doesn’t have its own direct blood supply. This is partly why it doesn’t heal as quickly after injury as other tissues do. Instead, it gets its nutrients by diffusion. This requires movement. Too little blood, and eventually the cartilage starves and dies.

Prevent and Reverse Joint Pain

Continuous movement of between five and twenty minutes at a time stimulates the chondrocytes (cells that produce cartilage) to generate more of it. This is why exercise is just about the best thing you can do to prevent the joint pain that comes from loss of cartilage. Exercise will also help you lose weight, of course—which means less strain on weight-bearing joints.

Anything that increases blood flow to the joints will also stimulate the chondrocytes to repair. A few ideas:

  • Hydrotherapy, or alternating hot and cold, is great for this.
  • Prolotherapy, or the injection of a benign substance such as dextrose into the joint space, creates a local irritant which stimulates blood flow and chondrocyte action.
  • Acupuncture needles placed locally will also stimulate blood flow to the area around the joint, increasing diffusion and nutrient delivery.

Glucosamine and chondroitin are some of the most popular over-the-counter treatments for joint pain because they are building blocks for cartilage. The idea is, if your body has more of the necessary building blocks available, it’ll make the job that much easier. According to this study, it works as well as prescription anti-inflammatory medication. It does require at least a month before you’ll see much improvement, though.

If you have joint pain in multiple joints and no injury history to explain it, though, there’s almost certainly something in your diet that needs to change. For some patients, it’s removing food allergies (nightshades like potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes are common culprits). For many it’s sugar. Sometimes essential fatty acid deficiency plays a role.

The Take-Home Message

  • If you do nothing else, start an exercise program. Start small if you’re not used to exercising and build on it from there. Do something that you know you can maintain.
  • Get assessed for the diet and supplement regime that’s right for you.
  • If a particular joint bothers you, do something to stimulate blood flow to the area when you’re not exercising. Alternating hot and cold are a great way to do this.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin are a good idea (unless you’re allergic to shellfish!).

For daily health tips on your newsfeed, Like Dr Lauren on Facebook!