Turmeric May Help Reduce Osteoarthritis Pain, Study Finds


Key Takeaways

  • In a recent study, turmeric reduced pain for participants who have knee osteoarthritis.
  • Although previous studies have linked turmeric to reduced inflammation, the study didn't show a significant decrease in swelling for participants.
  • Turmeric may be helpful for those with osteoarthritis to try, but a joint specialist emphasizes that other lifestyle changes can be useful as well.

The common spice turmeric could be helpful for treating knee pain related to osteoarthritis, according to new research published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

New Zealand researchers recruited 70 participants with knee osteoarthritis symptoms, including pain and swelling. Over the course of 12 weeks, about half took a placebo, while the other half had two capsules of Curcuma longa—the scientific name for turmeric—every day.

At the end of the three-month period, the turmeric group reported significantly less pain than the placebo group, even though swelling did not change and cartilage composition remained the same.

Turmeric for Pain Reduction

Despite the fact that swelling did not go down for the turmeric group, the finding that pain lessened to some degree is not entirely surprising. The spice has been widely studied for its analgesic properties, especially for joints.

For example, a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials found evidence that supports the efficacy of turmeric in the treatment of arthritis, and those researchers concluded there is "compelling justification for its use as a dietary adjunct to conventional therapy."

The meta-analysis suggested that using turmeric extracts (typically 1000 mg/day of the spice's active compound, curcumin) for 8–12 weeks provides benefits similar to using ibuprofen and other standard pain treatments in people with arthritis, especially osteoarthritis.

The mechanism is related to reduced inflammation throughout the body from the spice, which is thought to improve joint health.

The Quest for Supplemental Therapies

Looking for more natural remedies—or at least nonproblematic ones—for pain, particularly chronic pain, has become a priority for many patients and healthcare providers.

This is largely due to the growing awareness around issues of opioid addiction as the number of prescriptions for opioids surged and the reliance on these habit-forming medications became unsustainable, according to a study in Arthritis Care & Research.

That study looked at 2,297 physician visits for the condition and found that physical therapy and lifestyle suggestions declined from 2007 to 2015, while prescriptions for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, narcotics, and opioids increased.

Samannaaz Khoja, PT, PhD

We are not against controlling pain, or medications that can help with that in the short term, but there needs to be a larger focus on long-term strategies like improving strength, function, and lifestyle habits.

— Samannaaz Khoja, PT, PhD

Lifestyle behaviors that have been shown to help knee osteoarthritis include:

  • Losing weight
  • Physical therapy
  • Eating healthier foods
  • Getting more exercise and everyday activity

“Patients may not be receiving optimum care for knee osteoarthritis if pain medications are what’s being emphasized,” says lead author Samannaaz Khoja, PT, PhD, at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health. “We are not against controlling pain, or medications that can help with that in the short term, but there needs to be a larger focus on long-term strategies like improving strength, function, and lifestyle habits."

The Unique Challenge of Knees

Although the recent study on turmeric could have implications for other forms of osteoarthritis, the fact that researchers chose the knees as their main focus is not surprising, according to Steve Yoon, MD, physiatrist and director of the Regenerative Sports and Joint Clinic at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.

"In general, knee osteoarthritis is notoriously difficult to treat," he says. "Once you have pain there, it can take a lot of time and hard work to address that. This is not a treatable condition, but pain can be alleviated without turning to opioids and other serious pain medications."

Steve Yoon, MD

In general, knee osteoarthritis is notoriously difficult to treat. Once you have pain there, it can take a lot of time and hard work to address that.

— Steve Yoon, MD

He noted that it can take a multi-layered approach to address knee osteoarthritis pain and swelling, and that might include complementary or alternative therapies such as:

  • Acupuncture
  • Whole-body cryotherapy
  • Anti-inflammatory diets

Yoon adds that one growing trend is “orthobiologics", injections that may include hyaluronic acid, platelet-rich plasma, and stem cells, with the goal of helping tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. But the best approach of all is prevention, he said. Surgeries like knee replacements are another option, but they are often a last resort after other strategies have been tried.

Prioritize Prevention

What works best of all? Prevention. Focusing on losing weight and gaining strength, as well as exercising in a way that increases intensity and endurance gradually, can all be very helpful for keeping your knees healthy.

“Typically, this is an overuse injury and it’s progressive, which is why it’s so hard to treat,” says Yoon. As the knee continues to worsen, many people end up becoming more sedentary, which has a ripple effect—eating more inflammatory foods, feeling increased stress, gaining weight—that can all affect the knee even more and speed the degeneration.

Adding turmeric into your spice rotation can be a good idea, but Yoon suggests you keep going with the positive changes, and most of all, keep moving in a smart way.

"No matter what age you are, start a strength program because that will benefit you and your knees in so many ways," he says.

What This Means For You

If you have knee pain issues and inflammation, turmeric could help, but it's not a panacea. The spice may provide modest improvements, but a bigger boost could come from other complementary approaches like eating healthy foods, getting quality sleep, exercising regularly, and lowering stress levels. Also, be sure to talk with your doctor if you're planning on taking turmeric as a regular supplement to check that it won't interfere with other medications.

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