Accidents happen. Maybe you slipped on a slick sidewalk and ended up with a nasty bruise or a sprained ankle. Perhaps you picked up that too-heavy box in just the wrong way, and wound up with strained muscles. Or maybe you decided to enthusiastically engage in a sport you haven’t played since Reagan was in office—and afterward a pulled muscle was the least of your troubles.
Any kind of mechanical trauma can injure the elements of the musculoskeletal system: muscles, joints, bones, tendons (connective tissue that attaches muscle to bone) and ligaments (connective tissue holding joints together). Such pain can range from mildly irritating to debilitating. Even daily wear and tear on our bodies can lead to chronic conditions such as arthritis. And whether such pain is acute (short-term) or chronic (lasts longer than three months) makes no difference—all pain affects our day-to-day life.
While many people turn to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen, or acetaminophen drugs such as Tylenol, prolonged use of these drugs can actually impede the healing of injuries. Studies even suggest that prophylactic use—taking them before exercise—may be counterproductive because they can inhibit the synthesis of substances such as collagen, which strengthens muscles and bones. Instead, turn to your kitchen cabinets for anti-inflammatory foods and medicinal spices to reduce muscle and joint pain.
Eat Anti-Inflammatory Foods
When it comes to anti-inflammatory benefits, a plant-based diet that includes fish is the way to go. Flavonoids and carotenoids, plant pigments responsible for the rich hues of fruits and vegetables, may reduce free radical damage—a sort of cellular warfare that both worsens and is aggravated by arthritis. Within this dietary framework, focus on these particular foods, whose key chemicals have caught the attention of scientists.
Fatty fish are laden with inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. Supplemental fish oil can also reduce rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. Interestingly, a 2014 study showed that an omega-3 fatty acid extract from New Zealand green lipped mussels outperformed fish oil in providing relief for people with osteoarthritis (OA).
Beet juice has many healthful merits. In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, seven healthy men drank two cups of beet juice a day for six days. Drinking it appeared to improve athletic performance by enhancing the efficiency of skeletal muscles’ use of oxygen. Blood pressure was also reduced.
Watermelon contains the amino acid L-citrulline, which increases nitric oxide, in turn promoting blood circulation and glucose uptake into cells. It also seems to reduce muscle pain. In a 2013 study, athletes who drank 17 ounces of fresh watermelon juice an hour before an intense workout had less muscle soreness than those who drank a placebo beverage.
Avocadoes are rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and healthy fats, among other nutritional virtues. A product called avocado and soy unsaponifiables (ASU) is made from the unsaponifiable fats (those that can’t be made into soap with the addition of lye) of both foods. Studies show ASU reduces symptoms of knee and hip OA and may help repair joints.
Pineapples are brimming with antioxidants, chemicals that promote healing after injury, and the enzyme bromelain. Preliminary research shows this enzyme may help treat sports injuries and, with the enzyme trypsin and the flavonoid rutin, help relieve OA pain. However, one large study did not find significant benefit from bromelain used alone or in combination with trypsin and rutin.
Cherries owe their ruby hue to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory flavonoids. Studies have focused on the juice of tart cherries. A small 2006 trial showed that drinking 12 ounces of tart cherry juice before, during and after a bout of intense exercise reduced the usual post-workout pain and loss of muscle strength. Two 2010 trials found that consuming tart cherry juice (12 ounces twice a day) for several days spanning a marathon improved recovery. Another study showed that people with gout who ate cherries had fewer attacks of the painful arthritis.
You can up the anti-inflammatory ante in your meals using spices shown to reduce pain.
Turmeric, the spice that makes curry yellow, contains the potent anti-inflammatory chemical curcumin. Studies show curcumin supplements can ease arthritis pain. Traditionally, the powdered herb is also made into a paste and applied topically for strains, sprains and arthritis pain. (Using turmeric and other spices, make this Spicy Pain-Relieving Cream Recipe.)
Cayenne pepper gets its heat from a chemical called capsaicin. When capsaicin binds to pain receptors in the skin, it initially causes a pricking sensation. Afterward, pain sensitivity usually declines, especially with repeated application of capsaicin. Studies show that capsaicin creams can reduce painful conditions such as back pain and arthritis.
Cinnamon can help prevent sore muscles, according to a 2013 study of Iranian female athletes. Those who consumed 3 grams a day of ginger or 3 grams a day of cinnamon experienced less post-workout muscle soreness than women taking a placebo.
Ginger, which belongs to the same plant family as turmeric, may combat pain and inflammation. In one study, 250 mg of a ginger extract (taken four times a day) diminished pain from knee OA, but only after three months of continuous use. Similar to turmeric, ginger can be applied topically. Massage alone can modestly reduce soreness in exercise-related muscle injury, but one study found that using a product containing ginger essential oil enhanced the ability of Swedish massage to relieve back pain. Another study showed that ginger compresses and commercial ginger-containing skin patches mitigated OA pain. To see a video demonstration of making a compress check out Make a Ginger Compress to Soothe Sore Muscles.
Herbal Pain Relief
Topical herbal treatments can help painful injuries and joints.
Comfrey is a plant used for pain-relieving and wound-healing that is easy to grow in North America. While potential ill effects on the liver restrict internal use, topical preparations have been shown to reduce pain and swelling from muscle strains, tendonitis, sprained ankles, OA pain and back pain. If you use a homemade comfrey salve, restrict use to four to six weeks and do not apply to abraded skin.
Homeopathic arnica gel applied topically reduced muscle tenderness after vigorous exercise, according to a 2014 study. Arnica and horse chestnut gels also may reduce bruising.
Call the Doctor when...
• An injury results in severe pain, limited movement at a joint, or there is an inability to bear weight.
• You may have hurt your head or neck, or broken a bone.
• Pain or decreased function persists after 72 hours of home care.
While overuse and athletic injuries can damage joints, exercise is important in maintaining the joints and their supporting muscles. Experts tout regular exercise as an essential part of the prevention and treatment of osteoarthritic pain, a degenerative condition that occurs from wear and tear with age, commonly due to injuries, overuse or obesity. Regular physical activity also helps keep off the excess pounds that burden joints. If your knees hurt, opt for low-impact exercise. Research-backed options include aquatic exercise, yoga and tai chi.
In the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture, practitioners insert slender needles into points along meridians to open blockages to the pathways for the flow of qi (energy). A key indication for acupuncture is relief of pain. Studies show it can help.
Linda B. White, M.D., is the author of 500 Time-Tested Home Remedies and the Science Behind Them.