Turmeric for knee pain: Nature’s natural pain killer?

New research suggests that the herb turmeric and its active ingredients are as effective as over-the-counter anti-inflammatories for combating knee pain

Chronic knee conditions characterized by long-term pain and inflammation are all too common in sport, especially among older athletes(1). The most common of all these conditions is osteoarthritis (OA), which is thought to arise principally via age-related degeneration. In many cases where OA is present, no simple treatment is available, and many athletes therefore resort to pain/inflammation relief in the form of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs), which includes over-the-counter products such as Ibuprofen or stronger medications such as Naproxen.

A better approach

The problem with NSAID use is that side effects are common, and can lead to severe gastrointestinal problems – for a more detailed discussion of NSAIDs in sport, readers are directed to this article. But now a new study has investigated whether supplementation with turmeric or curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) can help reduce pain and improve physical function in individuals with knee osteoarthritis (OA). The researchers also compared the therapeutic response (pain and knee function) of turmeric with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

In this study, which appears in the British Medical Journal Open Sport and Exercise Medicine Journal (titled ‘Therapeutic effects of turmeric or curcumin extract on pain and function for individuals with knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review’), researchers gathered together all the previous research on turmeric/curcumin and pain relief/function in knee osteoarthritis. Ten studies were included in the final analysis of which eight had high methodological quality and two were categorized as ‘good’. Participants and assessors were blinded in eight of these studies and three of the studies compared turmeric therapy to NSAID use.

The results

The key finding was that all ten studies showed significant improvements in pain and function with turmeric therapy. In the three studies comparing turmeric to NSAIDs, there were no differences in outcome scores – in other words, the turmeric therapy was just as effective as the use of NSAIDs such as Ibuprofen. Importantly, there were no significant adverse events in the turmeric therapy group, which in plain English means no reported side effects. This is in contrast to NSAID use in athletes, where side effects are common(2). In summing up, the researchers concluded that there appears to be a benefit of turmeric and its derivatives on knee OA pain and function and that these benefits are similar to that of NSAIDs.

 Read more

These findings are impressive, and tie in with extensive research on curcumin and inflammation that SPB reported on back in 2018. You can read more about the use of curcumin – and other naturally occurring anti-inflammatories such as ginger and other nutrients that can be used to combat soreness and pain – in this SPB article titled ‘Older athletes: don’t let age be a pain’. The good news for athletes seeking pain-free activity is that sometimes, Nature knows best!


  1. Clin Rheumatol. 2018 Sep; 37(9): 2497–2504
  2. BMJ Open. 2013 Apr 19;3(4). pii: e002090

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