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Fish Oil for Sore Joints

Readers report success taking fish oil for sore joints. One person insists, however, that it must contain DPA as well as EPA and DHA.

People with joint pain due to arthritis or inflammation often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Common nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as diclofenac, ibuprofen or naproxen offer short-term pain relief, but they can cause disastrous damage in the gastrointestinal tract, as well as harm to the heart and the kidneys. Some readers have tried fish oil for sore joints. How well does it work?

Is There Evidence to Support Taking Fish Oil for Sore Joints?

Q. I have heard that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil may be beneficial in helping the body repair cartilage and improving arthritic joints. I wonder if this is an old wives’ tale or if it holds up under scrutiny.

A. There have been a number of studies suggesting that fish oil is helpful for joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis. Even when the doctor does not detect an objective difference, patients taking fish oil report less pain and morning stiffness and take fewer pain relievers (Pain, May 2007).

One reader wrote:

“Fish oil is amazing. My husband is under a doctor’s care for arthritis. Within one day of starting fish oil, the swelling began to go down in his fingers. He still takes his prescribed medication, but in lower doses. This relief is so much better.”

Do You Need DPA Along with DHA and EPA?

Q. Recently a reader extolled the virtues of fish oil for his arthritic knees. I would like to share a similar story.

I was plagued with hip bursitis. Not wanting to rely completely on anti-inflammatory meds, I doubled my fish oil intake. That meant two capsules daily, about 200 mg EPA and 1000 mg DHA per capsule. I actually noticed little improvement.

Then I switched to another brand of fish oil. It has the same amount of EPA and DHA but also contains 130 mg of DPA. Within a week I noticed a marked though not total improvement. I can only attribute it to the DPA.

A. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and DPA (docosapentaenoic acid) are all omega 3 fatty acids (Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes, and Essential Fatty Acids, Aug. 2018).  However, DPA is rarely included in dietary supplements. Moreover, dietary sources are scarce.

Although studies suggest that lipid intake (such as omega-3 fats) only accounts for a small proportion of arthritis pain, DPA may be relevant (Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, Aug. 2022).

Will Cod Liver Oil Ease Joint Pain?

Q. Five years ago I read about a study done at Cardiff University in Wales. They gave 1,000 milligrams of high-strength cod liver oil for 12 weeks to patients scheduled for knee replacement surgery. Samples of cartilage and joint tissue at the time of surgery showed that 86 percent of the osteoarthritis patients produced less of a cartilage-eroding enzyme.

I decided to try adding cod liver oil pills to the glucosamine-chrondroitin I was already taking. I decided that if I had no reduction in pain in 12 weeks, I’d discontinue the cod liver oil.

My pain was so bad that it would wake me from a sound sleep every night and I would be up for hours. Nothing helped. Then one morning, I realized that I had slept thru the night with no pain! This was only 21 days after starting the cod liver oil.

I have recommended this to many people and we have all gotten the same wonderful results. I wonder how many knee replacement surgeries could have been avoided if people could have tried fish oil for sore joints before submitting to surgery.

A. We are sorry that we could not find a reference to the Welsh study. Cod liver oil is full of omega-3 fats that have anti-inflammatory activity. It is also a rich source of both vitamin A and vitamin D. If your vitamin D level was low, replenishing it could reduce chronic joint pain.

We do worry about taking cod liver oil for long periods of time, though. Some research suggests that high vitamin A intake over months or years may weaken bones.

Learn More:

If you are interested in a range of treatments for stiff joints, you may wish to read our eGuide to Alternatives for Arthritis. In it, we discuss numerous herbs and remedies along with fish oil for sore joints.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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  • Goldberg RJ & Katz J, "A meta-analysis of the analgesic effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for inflammatory joint pain." Pain, May 2007. DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2007.01.020
  • von Schacky C & Harris WS, "Why docosapentaenoic acid is not included in the Omega-3 Index." Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes, and Essential Fatty Acids, Aug. 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.plefa.2018.06.003
  • Loef M et al, "The association of the lipid profile with knee and hand osteoarthritis severity: the IMI-APPROACH cohort." Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, Aug. 2022. DOI: 10.1016/j.joca.2022.05.008
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