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Is Omega-3 Good for the Joints?

By Paula Martinac

Your body has more than 300 different joints, which are the points where your bones meet. The cartilage that surrounds the ends of your bones absorbs shock from jolts and bumps, and synovial fluid keeps your movable joints well oiled. But occasional or chronic inflammation in these joints can lead to arthritis, a collection of disorders that result in pain, swelling and restricted mobility. Some research suggests that adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help alleviate joint pain.

Causes of Joint Pain

In osteoarthritis, one of the most common forms of arthritis, the cartilage padding the ends of the bones begins to deteriorate due to wear from aging, injury or obesity. This is the type of arthritis common in older people. Rheumatoid arthritis may occur at any age, and is an autoimmune disease in which the body's antibodies begin to attack its own tissues, leading to swollen, deformed joints. Gout, a type of arthritis more common in men than women, is a metabolic issue in which uric acid crystals build up in the synovial fluid of the joints; possible causes include alcohol use and some medications.

Omega-3s and Joints

Doctors commonly prescribe medication for arthritis, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. However, some foods may work to alleviate joint discomfort just as well. Chief among them are foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat. A review of the scientific literature on omega-3s and inflammation, published in the "Journal of the American College of Nutrition" in 2002, concluded that the omega-3s in fish oil -- namely, eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA -- proved beneficial to people with rheumatoid arthritis. A meta-analysis of 17 randomized trials, published in the journal "PAIN" in 2007, likewise found omega-3s "an attractive adjunctive treatment for joint pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis." Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston attribute the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s to their conversion into resolvin, a compound that seems to be able to flip a switch on inflammation.

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Sources of Omega-3s

The best sources of EPA and DHA for joint health are fatty fish, including salmon, herring, anchovies and sardines. A standard recommendation is to eat 3 or 4 ounces of fish twice weekly. You can also ask your doctor about taking a daily fish oil supplement for joint relief. Look for wild-caught, cold-water fish oil supplements that are free of contaminants. The University of Maryland Medical Center cautions not to supplement with more than 3 grams of omega-3s a day.

Considerations

Talk to your doctor about possible interactions of fish oil with other medications you are taking. If you are on blood thinners or have a bleeding disorder, for example, fish oil supplements may increase your risk of bleeding. Omega-3 supplements might also interfere with the effectiveness of diabetes medications. In addition, supplements and dietary sources of omega-3s can cause uncomfortable bloating, gas and belching.

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