Your body is composed of roughly 300 different joints, including the neck, knees, shoulders, and spine. That many joints means plenty of opportunity for pain, from occasional stiffness to chronic disorders like rheumatoid arthritis.
Every joint works differently, and a number of elements factor into joint health—age, genetics, lifestyle, diet—so there’s no “one size fits all” fix for pain. For nagging joint issues, it’s best to see a physical therapist or orthopedic specialist to develop a customized treatment plan. Still, experts say, there are some simple steps we can do at home to help ease the ache.
Nutrition for Joint Pain
Joint pain is usually tied to inflammation, and what we eat can make inflammation better or worse, says Sonya Angelone, MS, RDN, CLT, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Here’s what to add—or remove—from your plate:
Although research hasn’t proved this claim, some people notice their joints ache after eating vegetables in the nightshade family: tomatoes, eggplants, white potatoes, bell and chili peppers, ashwagandha, and goji berries. Nightshades contain alkaloids—chemicals the plants release naturally to repel pests and disease. Some people’s immune systems see alkaloids as invading pathogens and attack them with inflammation-inducing cytokines. Try avoiding these veggies and see if joint pain lessens, Angelone says.
Eat more fiber.
Most of the immune system is housed in the GI tract. Keeping it functioning properly keeps inflammation in check. Fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains maintain a healthy gut. “The gut is the root to all inflammation,” Angelone says. “Fiber feeds good bacteria that live in your gut and promotes a healthy immune response with less inflammation.”
Angelone recommends eating low-mercury, cold-water fish—salmon, anchovies, sardines, trout—at least twice a week. They’re rich in omega-3 fatty acids, producing anti-inflammatory chemicals (called resolvins and protectins) that circulate throughout the body, including the joints.
See also: Food for Joint Pain & Arthritis
Yoga for Joint Pain
When your joints are bothering you, modify your asana practice and lean on other limbs of yoga, namely, meditation and breathwork. Making these shifts can help maintain a consistent practice while reducing risk of pain, says Charlotte Raich, E-RYT 500, Yoga Alliance and Yoga Alliance Foundation director of IT projects and portfolio management. She recommends practicing at least 15 minutes a day to see benefits.
Generally speaking, movement helps keep joints mobile, flexible, and well-lubricated, Raich says. Don’t stop moving when your joints feel twinge-y. Instead, take walks or find pose variations that don’t put pressure on problem areas.
“Meditation induces the relaxation response in the body, taking us out of fight or flight, and into a calmer state of the nervous system,” Raich says. Relaxation can release tension in the joints, further lessening pain. It’s okay to get off your cushion. Short meditations or walks in nature work just as well as long stints in sukhasana, Raich says.
Focusing on the breath—counting breaths, box breathing, or other organized breathwork—diverts attention away from pain. Plus, deep breathing releases feel-good endorphins, induces relaxation, and calms the nervous system.
Physical Therapy for Joint Pain
Even simple exercises done regularly can help the joints by building strength and improving flexibility and mobility, says Sherri Betz, PT, DPT, a physical therapist, yoga and Pilates teacher, and owner of TheraPilates in Monroe, Louisiana. Here are some of her favorites:
Open the shoulders
Neck, shoulder, and back pain are commonly caused by rounding forward at the mid-back (the thoracic spine)—often from long periods of sitting, looking down at devices, and the natural degeneration of discs from aging. Back-extension exercises open the chest to stop the slump. Lie down and place a small Yamuna or other firm stability ball between the shoulder blades, then drape the upper back over it. Another version of this exercise uses a rolled-up yoga mat or small bolster, placed lengthwise along the spine.
Strengthen the legs
Strong legs, good balance, and erect posture can keep joints healthy and prevent falls, Betz says. Stand with feet together in Mountain pose often. Do heel raises to improve balance and strengthen calves. Stand on one leg at least 2 minutes each day (though it doesn’t have to be all at once).
Bend into Squats
We squat every day—to get out of a chair or off the toilet—so squats should be a regular part of an exercise routine, Betz says. If you have hip or knee pain, a PT or yoga teacher can teach a squat or Chair pose form that’s best for your body.