Can food cause joint or muscle pain?
Some people do experience joint or muscle pain after eating certain foods. This usually happens because the food triggers an inflammatory reaction.
Muscle pain and swollen or sore muscles are possible symptoms, but joint pain is probably more common. This is because joints are more prone to inflammatory reactions and can show symptoms immediately (within minutes) after having a meal.
Knee, shoulder, and back pain are the most common, but inflammation can trigger problems anywhere in the body.
Why does food cause muscle or joint pain?
Muscle or joint pain after certain foods or ingredients usually indicates an underlying medical issue, that should be diagnosed.
These are the most common health problems that might trigger muscle or joint pain:
- food allergies
- inflammatory joint diseases
People suffering from one or more of the above conditions are prone to experience inflammation after eating certain types of foods. The symptom of this inflammation might be joint pain or muscle pain.
Food allergies & joint pain
Food allergy is an abnormal reaction of the immune system to certain foods or ingredients in certain foods.
Symptoms can be as mild as runny nose and itchy skin, or (rarely) very serious, such as anaphylaxis, which requires immediate help.
Inflammation is the response of the immune system to a perceived injury or infection. This is great, if there is indeed an injury or infection, this is how the body fights the infection.
However, people suffering from food allergies might experience such inflammation after eating certain foods, and this might cause muscle or joint pain.
From a study about the adverse reactions to food in the joints and muscles:
There are several reasons for considering the hypothesis that food hypersensitivity might relate to rheumatic diseases. Food can evoke immune responses. Food can cause immunologically mediated symptoms. Immunological mechanisms are important in the pathogenesis of rheumatic diseases. Antigens triggering rheumatic responses are unknown. Rheumatic diseases have been associated with foods in many reports.(source)
Inflammatory Joint Diseases
Inflammatory joint diseases – like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) – are chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. This is also an abnormal reaction of the immune system, attacking healthy cells and causing inflammation.
People with RA often have joint pain, usually in many joints at the same time.
A study examining food-induced arthritis concluded:
Probably not more than 5% of rheumatic disease patients have immunologic sensitivity to food(s). Such patients have been identified only by controlled challenge studies. These observations suggest a role for food allergy in at least some patients with rheumatic disease.(source)
This study also suggests that there might be a connection between diet and joint pain.
Joint pain and diabetes
Diabetes is a chronic disease that is the main culprit behind various inflammatory disorders, such as inflammation of joints (arthritis).
Uncontrolled diabetes may lead to other co-morbidities like:
- diabetic retinopathy
- diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage)
- diabetic nephropathy
- diabetic foot disease
- joint pain
The most common Inflammatory joint disease associated with uncontrolled diabetes is arthritis. Arthritis is of two types:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (Inflammatory autoimmune disease)
- Osteoarthritis (Inflammatory disease)
This is an autoimmune inflammatory disorder in which complement activation against own body cells destroys the bone cartilage. Destruction of cartilage restricts joint movement.
It is associated with type 2 diabetes, in which a high level of glucose reacts with proteins and produces advanced glycation end products. These products damage cartilage and restrict joint movement.
Asthma is an inflammatory disease that affects the lungs.
Asthma is associated with breathing difficulty, which causes stress on the muscle of the diaphragm, which is involved in breathing, and causes muscle pain in your lower back and neck when breathing.
Corticosteroids are used as the first-line drugs to treat asthma. Corticosteroids lower the absorption of calcium. Low calcium levels in your body activate bone cells to dissolve bone and release calcium. This process reduces bone mass and causes osteoporosis associated with joint pain.
What are the common trigger foods of muscle and joint pain?
The most common foods causing joint and muscle pain after eating are:
- red meat
However, depending on the underlying health issue, various foods can trigger symptoms. E.g. people can be allergic to a wide variety of foods and might have joint pain after eating them.
Sugar is the most used product in our daily diet plan. Naturally occurring sugar usually doesn’t cause any problem. (Albeit the lactose in milk might trigger allergic reactions and cause joint pain.)
Highly processed added sugar in sweets, cookies, but also in many processed food has certain chemicals that trigger an inflammatory reaction in the joint.
These chemicals release the pro-inflammatory substances in the human body that trigger inflammation in the joint.
Fats or fatty acids in moderate amounts are important components of human growth and development.
However, the overconsumption of fatty acids triggers an inflammatory reaction, which might cause joint pain.
Fat has multiple sources in our diet but these foods are especially rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, which can cause an inflammatory reaction in the body.
- vegetable oils
Alcohol consumption has a severe effect on the gut.
Long-term heavy drinking can disrupt gut motility that triggers an inflammatory reaction in the body. This reaction is not limited to joint and muscle pain.
If consumed for a longer period, this gradually spreads to the organs that are situated near the gut, e.g. the liver or the heart.
A gluten-free diet might be the solution for those who are sensitive to gluten or have celiac disease:
This confirmed an earlier, small case series that showed improvement of the joint symptoms in newly diagnosed celiac disease patients following treatment with a gluten free diet.(source)
Red meat is another food that is associated with inflammation.
According to this study, a high body mass index (BMI) accounts for a significant proportion of this inflammatory response. So obese people are more at risk of experiencing joint pain after eating red meat.
On the other hand, both above-linked studies note that a plant-based diet probably has a role in mediating symptoms.
Sometimes eating can trigger both muscle and joint pain.
In many cases, certain foods trigger inflammation in the body and joint pain is a symptom of that.
Food allergy is also a common trigger of joint and muscle pain.
Muscle pain can also be caused by dehydration or by issues in the nervous system.
Common trigger foods are those that are either prone to cause inflammation – like sugar, fat, red meat, etc – or common allergens – such as eggs, tree nuts, etc.
Frequently asked questions
Eggs can be both pro- and anti-inflammatory, depending on several factors. E.g. eggs are more likely to be pro-inflammatory in healthy individuals but might be beneficial for overweight people.
Egg is also a common food allergen.
Both inflammation and food allergy might cause joint pain, so some people might experience symptoms after eating eggs.
Energy drinks contain caffeine which is the main stimulant of the nervous system. Too much caffeine augments the nervous system response, which leads to long-lasting contractions of muscles without relaxation causing muscle spasms, cramps, and twitching in your hands and feet.
Caffeine also increases gastrointestinal motility, which causes excessive urination. This may result in dehydration and an increase in body temperature.
Increased body temperature and dehydration can lead to muscle cramps.
Alcohol gets converted into lactic acid by the liver. Drinking too much alcohol boosts the lactic acid levels in the body, which gets stored in the liver and muscles.
Lactic acid decreases muscle pH levels, leading to muscular pain.
Alcohol-related muscular neuropathy (in which the peripheral nerves are damaged) is caused by excessive use of alcohol, leading to muscular pain.
Drinking too much alcohol also lowers muscular protein synthesis that results in muscular pain.