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Sweet relief: 5 ways to treat stiff and achy joints

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From arthritis to bursitis, an expert explains how to battle joint pain and inflammation. 

Kim Robinson

By Kim Robinson

As we age, we gain many beautiful things. Wisdom, knowledge, perspective. Unfortunately, stiff joints can come with the territory, too. And the possible culprits are many.

For starters, years of moving our bodies can do a number on our joints. Over time, the cartilage that covers the ends of our bones, which cushions our joints, deteriorates. And less cushion can mean more stiffness and less flexibility.

Another big offender is arthritis. The most common kind is osteoarthritis, which impacts more than 32.5 million American adults. It’s a degenerative disease that causes the cartilage around the joints to break down over time, says Jason Kim, PhD. He’s the vice president of osteoarthritis research programs for the Arthritis Foundation in Atlanta.

Repetitive motions, such as a golf swing or tennis swing, can also aggravate joints and cause inflammation. This inflammation, known as bursitis, can bring on pain, swelling and stiffness.

Some joint pain can also be caused by autoimmune conditions. That means the body mistakenly attacks its own tissues, including the soft tissue around joints. Two common examples are lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Regardless of what’s causing your creakiness, there are several ways to treat your aches and pains. Talk to your doctor about what’s causing your joint pain and the most effective ways to ease it. (And don’t forget to bring your free prescription discount card with you to the pharmacy. You could save up to 80% on your medications.)

Ready to start the conversation — and get back to doing what you love most? Here are 5 treatments to consider.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

Good old-fashioned over-the-counter medications such as naproxen (Aleve®) or ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®), known as NSAIDs, relieve pain and reduce inflammation. That makes them a good choice to treat joint pain and stiffness, including arthritis, Kim says. NSAIDs are a first-line treatment for arthritis, before stronger medications are considered.

NSAIDs relieve pain fast. But you may need to take them for weeks before you see any change in other symptoms such as swelling, says the Arthritis Foundation.

Talk to your doctor about which type of NSAID is right for you, and at what dose. You’ll want to develop a treatment plan together. Like all medications, NSAIDs can have side effects, including stomach pain and ulcers.

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“Steroids can be a good source of pain relief in the appropriate patient,” says Daniel Paull, MD. He’s an orthopedic surgeon and founder and CEO of Easy Orthopedics in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

That’s because they’re potent — and they work fast. Corticosteroids such as prednisone (Prednisone Intensol®, Rayos®) and hydrocortisone (Cortef®) reduce inflammation and suppress the immune system. That makes them particularly helpful for those with arthritis-related pain.

Again, there are risks. And some can be serious, especially with long-term use, says the Arthritis Foundation. These can include weight gain, increased blood pressure and even bone loss. So consider the pros and cons with your doctor.

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)

These medications are for those with autoimmune conditions such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. They can actually stop or slow damage to joint tissues by blocking inflammation. In fact, they’re the only kind of medication that’s been shown to slow or halt the progression of these inflammatory diseases, according to the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center.

There are lots of different kinds of DMARDs that your doctor may prescribe. Know that they can take time to take effect. For example, one of the most common options is methotrexate (Trexall®, Rheumatrex®). And it can take up to 8 weeks to work. That’s why some doctors may also prescribe NSAIDs or corticosteroids while you wait.

Newer DMARDs, called biologics, are another option. While older DMARDs act on the immune system more broadly, biologics can target specific parts of the immune system. This means they can pinpoint joint inflammation. Two examples are etanercept (Enbrel®) and adalimumab (Humira®).

Any time you suppress the immune system, there are risks. For example, it can put you at a greater risk of infections, says the Arthritis Foundation.

Anti-inflammatory foods

“There is no strong evidence for a specific diet for treating arthritis pain,” says Kim. “But generally, a healthful, anti-inflammatory eating pattern is recommended.”

For example, a study in Arthritis found that people with osteoarthritis who ate a diet high in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains reported having better joint function and reduced joint pain compared with those who ate a typical American diet.

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So what’s involved in an anti-inflammatory eating pattern? According to Harvard Health Publishing, foods that may promote inflammation include:

  • Refined carbs (white bread, white rice)
  • Fried foods
  • Soda
  • Red meat

And foods that may help reduce inflammation include:

  • Tomatoes
  • Olive oil
  • Nuts
  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel)
  • Fruits (strawberries, blueberries, oranges, cherries)
  • Green, leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, collards)


Physical activity and exercise such as walking, swimming, cycling, yoga and tai chi are all great ways to help reduce joint pain and improve joint function, Kim says.

Why? Well, your joints are surrounded by soft tissue. And that tissue creates fluid that lubricates your joints and helps your bones move past one another more smoothly. When you’re active, that fluid can get into your joints, helping your bones move with more ease, says Kim.

Have an injury that just won’t quit? Physical therapy can also be very useful for some people with joint pain, Kim adds. Another benefit of exercise: It can help you maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight puts more stress on the joints, and “weight loss is known to reduce pain symptoms of patients,” Kim says.

Know that joint pain doesn’t have to keep you from the activities you enjoy. Talk to your doctor about what action plan is right for you.

Does your action plan include medication? Let us help you save up to 80% on your prescriptions. Download the Optum Perks app today.


Additional sources
Osteoarthritis overview: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Your guide to NSAIDS and arthritis: Arthritis Foundation
Benefits and risks of corticosteroids: Arthritis Foundation
Treating rheumatoid arthritis: Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center
Anti-inflammatory foods and arthritis symptoms: Arthritis (2015). “Whole-foods, plant-based diet alleviates the symptoms of osteoarthritis