In recent years, there has been a lot of research that indicates that there is a big link between your gut and your health. Scientists have proven without a doubt that having a healthy gut microbiome plays a crucial role in disease prevention, weight loss, and much more. Now, new research has even concluded that there is a link between our gut bacteria and osteoarthritis. Read on to find out if your gut bacteria is causing joint pain.
Gut Bacteria and Joint Pain
Osteoarthritis is known to cause the slow degradation of the cartilage in your body, which is the padding present between your bones in a joint. Also known as wear and tear arthritis, osteoarthritis is known to affect over 30 million people in the US alone, and over the years, it has also become a leading cause of disability in the world. The alarming fact about osteoarthritis is that there is no cure for the condition, and the symptoms can only be managed by treatment.(1, 2, 3)
People who are overweight or obese carry extra weight that puts more strain on their joints. In fact, obesity is one of the leading risk factors for osteoarthritis. While excess weight definitely increases the risk of developing osteoarthritis, new research has found another incredible mechanism that may very well be linking obesity and osteoarthritis. Published in April 2018 in the JCI Insight journal, the study looked at the association of gut bacteria and how it might be related to obesity and osteoarthritis.(4)
Can Your Gut Bacteria Be Causing Joint Pain?
Study Linking Diet, Gut Bacteria, Obesity, and Joint Pain
In 2018, a research team from the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York published the results of a study that explored the links between diet, obesity, gut bacteria, and osteoarthritis.
The researchers fed a diet rich in fat to mice for a period of 12 weeks. These mice quickly turned diabetic and became obese, nearly doubling the percentage of their body fat. After this, the researchers analyzed the bacteria inside the colons of these mice.
As the research team expected, the mice microbiomes were entirely off, and their bowels were overrun with bacteria that boosted inflammation, and there was also a distinct lack of probiotics, healthy bacteria, especially Bifidobacteria.
The scientists also observed that the obese mice suffered from body-wide inflammation, especially in their knee joints. Now, to induce osteoarthritis, the researchers inflicted injury on the menisci of the mice. This is the cushion of cartilage located between the thigh and shin bones. The researchers tore the menisci in these mice, which is a common type of injury known to cause osteoarthritis.
It was observed that the obese mice developed osteoarthritis much faster than the control mice. In fact, the study found that within 12 weeks, nearly all of the cartilage in the obese mice had disappeared. Since cartilage functions as both a lubricant and cushion for the body to promote frictionless joint movements, the loss of cartilage led to the only bone-on-bone movements, causing severe pain and even erosion of the bones involved. This can ultimately cause damage to the whole joint, leading to the replacement of the joint.(5, 6, 7)
Is it Possible to Slow Down or Reverse the Cartilage Damage?
In the next phase of their study, the researchers began the entire protocol all over again. They fed a fat-rich diet to the mice and fattened them up in 12 weeks. However, what they did differently this time was that they introduced a prebiotic known as oligofructose in their diet.
It is important that you don’t confuse prebiotics with probiotics.(8, 9) Prebiotics are substances that cannot be broken down by either human or mouse guts, and they promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. It has been seen that in the presence of prebiotics, many healthy bacteria, including Bifidobacteria, start to thrive in the gut.(10, 11)
Even though this was a small change, but it was a crucial change in the diet of the mice. The introduction of the prebiotic boosted the growth of healthy gut bacteria and also produced a significant reduction in the inflammation-causing bacteria. Most importantly, the consumption of prebiotics reduced inflammation in the joints of the mice. Due to this, the knee cartilage of these obese mice was almost indistinguishable from that of the control, non-obese mice.
Another dramatic change that was observed with the addition of the prebiotic was that it reduced the symptoms of diabetes, but it did not make any difference to the amount of weight gained by the mice.
Regardless of the weight gained, even though the joints were exposed to the same level of strain, these prebiotic-fed, obese mice were far healthier. The results of the study thus showed that inflammation, instead of physical or mechanical strain, was the critical factor responsible for causing osteoarthritis.
While these findings indicate that your gut bacteria could very well be responsible for joint pain, it is essential to keep in mind that, of course, there are some major differences between the microbiome of a mouse and humans. The next step, though, would be to carry out this line of investigation into human studies. The research team has formed an association with the Military and Veteran Microbiome: Consortium for Research and Education at the US Department of Veterans Affairs based in Colorado. Together, the team homes to look at the microbiomes of veterans who have obesity-related osteoarthritis and those who do not have osteoarthritis. At the same time, they also plan to supplement to some of the participants of the study with prebiotics to help understand how this may benefit their joint pain and the growth of their gut bacteria.
While these studies continue, it is important to keep in mind that eating healthy will boost your gut microbiome, which is essential in maintaining good health, mainly because it helps keep inflammation under control. Inflammation has been linked with many chronic diseases, and having healthy communities of gut bacteria can help keep you healthy by keeping inflammation at bay.
- Osteoarthritis (OA) (2020) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/osteoarthritis.htm (Accessed: December 29, 2022).
- Neogi, T., 2013. The epidemiology and impact of pain in osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis and cartilage, 21(9), pp.1145-1153.
- Kidd, B.L., 2006. Osteoarthritis and joint pain. Pain, 123(1), pp.6-9.
- Schott, E.M., Farnsworth, C.W., Grier, A., Lillis, J.A., Soniwala, S., Dadourian, G.H., Bell, R.D., Doolittle, M.L., Villani, D.A., Awad, H. and Ketz, J.P., 2018. Targeting the gut microbiome to treat the osteoarthritis of obesity. JCI insight, 3(8).
- Doran, P.M., 2015. Cartilage tissue engineering: what have we learned in practice?. Cartilage tissue engineering, pp.3-21.
- Besier, T.F., Pal, S., Draper, C.E., Fredericson, M., Gold, G.E., Delp, S.L. and Beaupré, G.S., 2015. The role of cartilage stress in patellofemoral pain. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 47(11), p.2416.
- Pap, T. and Korb-Pap, A., 2015. Cartilage damage in osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis—two unequal siblings. Nature Reviews Rheumatology, 11(10), pp.606-615.
- Delzenne, N.M., Neyrinck, A.M., Bäckhed, F. and Cani, P.D., 2011. Targeting gut microbiota in obesity: effects of prebiotics and probiotics. Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 7(11), pp.639-646.
- Weichert, S., Schroten, H. and Adam, R., 2012. The role of prebiotics and probiotics in prevention and treatment of childhood infectious diseases. The Pediatric infectious disease journal, 31(8), pp.859-862.
- Verbeke, K.A., Boobis, A.R., Chiodini, A., Edwards, C.A., Franck, A., Kleerebezem, M., Nauta, A., Raes, J., Van Tol, E.A. and Tuohy, K.M., 2015. Towards microbial fermentation metabolites as markers for health benefits of prebiotics. Nutrition research reviews, 28(1), pp.42-66.
- Sharma, S., Agarwal, N. and Verma, P., 2012. Miraculous health benefits of prebiotics. International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research, 3(6), p.1544.