Diet, inflammation and joint pain

Diet affects inflammation, swelling and ultimately the experience of pain. Inflammation will occur with any joint injury but the level of inflammation can be increased or reduced by a number of factors, including diet.

So what is inflammation and why is it important?

Inflammation is redness, swelling and heat that results from chemical, physical or infection related damage to cells of the body. Where damage has occurred, inflammatory chemicals are released and these tell the body to send extra blood and extra immune cells to the area, they also sensitise the nerves making the area particularly sore. This causes the swelling, redness and pain associated with a soft tissue injury. Once the blood cells and immune cells have done their job, the injury repairs and the inflammation dissipates.

This is a great system for sorting out acute or short term injuries and infections. However with persistent, long term or chronic damage to cells comes chronic inflammation, and this can be very problematic.

If a substance is introduced to your body that causes harm, it will active the immune system and an inflammatory response. A potent example is cigarette smoke – it activates inflammation in the lungs. If this persists regularly for years then the inflammation causes lung cells to degrade, change, repair and multiply, and ultimately they can then become cancerous.

Food too can be ‘pro-inflammatory’. This includes: processed meats, refined carbohydrates (white bread, pasta), sugar (cakes, sweets, fizzy drinks), saturated fats (including cheese and dairy), MSG (often found in Chinese takeaway), high temperature cooking oil, and alcohol (technically it is a toxin). These foods all activate an inflammatory respond and cause pro-inflammatory chemicals to travel through the bloodstream. So if a joint is inflamed anyway through injury or there is general joint inflammation, from arthritis, then the extra pro-inflammatory chemicals from food will increase the effect in the joints – so more swelling, more restriction and more pain.


The good news is that many foods have an ‘anti-inflammatory’ effect. And not a tablet in sight. As Hippocrates put it: ‘let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.’ So to beat inflammation aim for fish (oily fish has a particularly strong anti-inflammatory effect), nuts and seeds, fruit and veg, olive oil, and whole grains.

Obviously diet is about balance but bear in mind that if you’ve got a back injury, disc injury, trapped nerve or arthritis, then there will be inflammation present. By upping the ‘good food’ and reducing the processed and pro-inflammatory food, you can help to reduce joint inflammation and the aches that come with it.