MAR 19, 2019 3:27 PM PDT

Can a Low-Carb Diet Treat Osteoarthritis?

A pilot study suggests it might. Researchers at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, found that a low-carbohydrate diet was able to reduce pain intensity in participants suffering from knee osteoarthritis (KOA). Compared to a low-fat diet, the low-carbohydrate diet specifically increased quality of life and decreased serum levels of the adipokine leptin and a marker of oxidative stress.


Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis in the knee. This is thought to be related to the knee’s function as a weight-bearing joint. Obesity, age, injury, joint overuse, and genetics are among the risk factors for developing KOA. There is no cure for KOA, though some treatments may provide relief. Non-surgical treatments include weight loss, canes, knee braces, medications, and acupuncture. If non-surgical treatments are ineffective, surgery to reduce symptoms or replace part or all of the knee may be recommended.

In this study, the researchers separated 21 participants into three groups. The low-fat diet (LFD) group was directed to modify their diets to restrict fat intake to around 20% of daily calories.  The low-carbohydrate diet (LCD) group had their net carbohydrates reduced to less than 40g per day. The third group was not instructed to modify their diets. After twelve weeks both the LFD group and the LCD group lost a significant amount of weight. However, improvements in pain levels, quality of life and serum markers were only seen in the LCD group.

Senior author Robert Sorge, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and director of The Pain Collective at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, says there are two key takeaways from this study: that weight loss alone was not enough to reduce pain and that diet changes have advantages over other treatments for KOA.

“Weight loss alone did not reduce pain, even though the knee is a weight-bearing joint. Our work suggests that the quality of the diet (type of foods) has more to do with pain reduction than weight. Diet intervention has many advantages over other current drug-based treatments for pain. It is modifiable to taste, does not require a prescription and is relatively devoid of negative side effects, common to many drugs.” -Robert Sorge, PhD

As the study size was small, it will be interesting to see if the same results are observed in a larger, double-blinded study that utilizes a more diverse population of participants. It also needs to be determined if the reduction in pain, leptin levels, and oxidative stress require sustaining the weight loss and low-carbohydrate diet long term. Diet modification is accessible to almost everyone. If these results hold, a low-carbohydrate diet will make a great addition to the osteoarthritis pain management toolbox. Speak to your doctor before making any drastic dietary changes.


About the Author
  • Aleishia is a freelance medical/science writer that specializes in research-oriented content. Contact her for work.
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