One of the most common problems faced by strength training athletes is joint pain. Oddly enough, this topic is not covered very often in most bodybuilding/fitness magazines. Maybe the topic is just not all that "cutting edge," but if you're one of the thousands of people whose gains in muscle are being side tracked by joint pain, then you don't care about cutting edge - you just want relief!
Experts estimate that 80 percent or more of most bodybuilders joint pain is totally avoidable. If you look at people who have chronic joint pain, nine out of ten times you can see why they would have an aching appendage that causes them pain. More often that not, they rarely warm up adequately, they train too long and/or too often, they may use overly heavy weights/low reps more often than they should, they don't take time off to allow their joints, tendons, muscles, etc., to recuperate from heavy workouts, they use less than perfect form during heavy lifts, they don't take in adequate nutrients, or all of the above!
This article assumes that the reader has joint pain NOT because he (or she) is doing any one of the above seven common mistakes, but has joint pain due to some other factor out of their control. If you warm up and stretch thoroughly, train for no longer than an hour three to four days per week, cycle your weights and reps, take time off when you need it, have good form, take in adequate nutrients, and still have joint problems, then this might be the article for you.
Types of joint problems
There are of course different types of problems that cause common joint pain in athletes and "normal" people alike. Bursitis, tendinitis, various types of arthritis, and other afflictions, can be the cause of a person's aching joints.
Arthritis: There are many different forms of arthritis. The two most common are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Of the two, osteoarthritis is by far the most common to bodybuilders and other athletes. Caused by wear and tear on the joints, osteoarthritis is characterized by a deterioration of the cartilage at the ends of the bones. The once smooth cartilage becomes rough thus causing more and more friction and pain. Left untreated and unchecked, this can become very debilitating for the hard training athlete.
Bursitis: In our joints there are small fluid filled sacks called bursae. The bursae's job is to assist in the muscle/joints movement by cushioning the joints and bones against friction. If these sacks become inflamed and/or injured due to various causes (see above training mistakes), a chronic pain called "bursitis" can result. It's most often found in the shoulder or elbow (A.K.A tennis elbow) but can also be found in other joints of the body.
Tendonitis: Tendonitis is probably the most common cause of pain to bodybuilders and other athletes and is the easiest to treat. However, if left untreated and the person just "works through the pain," it can become a real problem that will put a quick end to your gains in muscle. Basically, tendinitis just means the tendon(s) around a joint have become severely inflamed from overuse, micro injury, etc.
The treatment options we are going to look at relate to natural compounds, or mixtures of natural compounds, that could save a person with aching joints years of pain and possibly even more. Unfortunately, the treatments offered by traditional medicine at this time are generally of little use to highly active people. Most of the treatments for joint problems address the symptoms (pain, swelling, etc) rather than the cause and can often make the problem worse in the long run. Non-steroidal anti- inflammatories, cortical steroid injections, joint replacement, and the always useful "stay off it" advice does not tend to yield the results most athletes want.
The suffix "-itis" means "inflammation of " according to The American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine. Inflammation is characterized by pain, swelling, redness, and less obvious symptoms. This leads us finally to our list of natural products that might just save the joints. These products tend to address not only the symptoms of the problem - that is the inflammation - but the underlying causes as well.
As strange as it might seem, the main ingredient (gelatin) in good 'ol Jello might be just what the doctor ordered for painful joints. Gelatin has been market world wide for many years as a food and as a supplement. Gelatin is made from animal collagen. In all animals - including man - collagen is an essential structural protein that forms an important part of bones, tendons, and connective tissues. Gelatin contains an exceptionally high content of two amino acids which play an important part in collagen formation, namely proline and glycine.
It takes 43 grams of dried egg whites or 35 grams of dried non fat milk or 89 grams of lean beef to equal the amount of proline in just 10 grams of hydrolyzed gelatin. The intake of hydrolyzed gelatin appears to be an alternative route to getting cartilage producing cells and bone forming cells of the body sufficient amounts of these important amino acids for making structural proteins. Although these cells are critical for collagen formation, their number is limited and their ability to form this much needed protein is influenced by heredity, age, physical activity (too little or too much), injury, and availability of nutrients.
Although bone metabolism is quite complex and not fully understood, there is a growing number of studies showing the intake of just ten grams per day of hydrolyzed gelatin is effective in greatly reducing pain, improving mobility and overall bone/cartilage health. Several randomized, double-blinded, crossover trials have shown improvements in symptoms related to joint pain (Adem et. al. Therapiewoche).
A fatty acid with the long and hard to pronounce name of Cetyl Myristoleate (CMT) has been receiving a good deal of attention by researchers concerned with joint pain and health.
Discovered by a researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), CMT looks very promising as a compound that greatly reduces joint pain due to a variety of causes. Though the human research at this time is not as solid as we would like, CMT has already developed a following with some alternative medical practitioners and by those who suffer from joint pain. Also, its effects seem to work rather quickly and relatively small amounts can be used. 12-15 grams spread out over an entire month appear to be effective. Exactly how CMT works is unclear but it might have something to do with a reduction in pro-inflammatory prostaglandins or some other mechanism.
Flax oil for everything!
Many bodybuilders and other athletes are starting to see the many benefits of flax oil for all sorts of uses. One obvious use of flax oil is a reduction in pain due to any type of inflammatory condition, including joint troubles. To understand why this is so, the reader must now endure a crash course in the topic of essential fatty acids and the many products made by these fatty acids found in the body.
The definition of an essential nutrient is anything the body cannot make itself and therefore must be obtained from the diet. We need to eat an assortment of vitamins and minerals, approximately nine to eleven amino acids, and two fatty acids to stay alive and healthy. The two essential fatty acids (EFAS) are called linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid. The first being an Omega-6 fatty acid and the latter being an Omega-3 fatty acid. Fish oils are also well publicized and researched Omega-3 fatty acids that have been shown to have many benefits. Flax oil is exceptionally high in Omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid). Omega-3 fatty acids, from fish, flax, etc., have been shown in the scientific/medical literature to reduce inflammation of any kind.
Remember the "-itis" part of the word relating to joint problems? How do you think non steroidal anti- inflammatories work? They reduce inflammation, but they also come with potential side effects and health problems. So how does flax oil do this wonderful thing? From both of the essential fatty acids the body makes something called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are very short lived hormone like substances that regulate cellular activity on a moment to moment basis. Prostaglandins are directly involved with regulating blood pressure, inflammatory responses, insulin sensitivity, immune responses, anabolic/catabolic processes, and hundreds of other functions known and yet unknown. The long and the short of all this is: Omega 3 fatty acids are responsible for forming the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins and the Omega 6 prostaglandins are responsible for making many of the pro-inflammatory prostaglandins, and other products derived from EFAS. A high intake of Omega 3 oils reduces inflammation (and pain) by this mechanism.
People who add in 1-3 tablespoons a day of flax oil to a protein drink, or over a salad, often notice a reduction in pain in their joints, not to mention all the other great things EFAS can do.
Glucosamine is considered by many as one of the best natural products for the treatment and prevention of cartilage degeneration. As mentioned previously, the Omega 3 fish oils (EPA/DHA) are renowned for improving pain and inflammation in joints and other areas of the body. GLA is a fatty acid derived from the Omega-6 class of fatty acids but has been shown to have many properties similar to that of the fish oils/flax oil in its ability to reduce inflammation through the production of the favorable anti-inflammatory/anti-auto immune prostaglandins.
The antioxidants vitamin E and C are added because it is well known that free radical pathology is part of the damage that takes place in the joints. Taken singularly, the above ingredients appear to have marginal effectiveness. Taken as a complex, they appear to be very synergistic.
If you are one of the millions of people who suffer from chronic joint pain, first make sure you are not making any of the most common mistakes outlined in the beginning of this article. Secondly, get an opinion from a doctor as to exactly what your problem is. You don't want to self diagnose what could be a serious problem. Finally, start with one of the above products and see if it improves your condition. Wait at least a few months before you make your assessment. Add in a second or third product if you don't think you are getting the results you want, which would be of course less pain and greater mobility through the joint in question. If serious joint pain is taking all the fun out of your activities, it will be worth your time and money.