The Surprising Link Between Carbs, Inflammation, and Hand Pain

Introduction

As a hand surgeon, I see firsthand how inflammation can wreak havoc, causing pain, stiffness, and limited function in your hands and wrists. But what you might not realize is that your diet, especially your carbohydrate intake, plays a significant role in managing inflammation throughout your body, including your joints. Let’s dive into the fascinating connection between carbs and inflammation, and how simple dietary changes can make a big difference for your hands and overall health.

Sideways picture of a right hand indicating where De Quervain's occurs

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates, often simply called “carbs,” are one of the three macronutrients our bodies use for energy, alongside protein and fat.

They come in various forms:
Simple Carbohydrates (Sugars): These are quickly digested and absorbed, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. Examples include table sugar, refined flour, sugary drinks, and many processed foods.
Complex Carbohydrates (Starches): Made up of longer chains of sugar molecules, they take longer to digest. Examples include whole grains, beans, and vegetables.
Fiber: A type of complex carbohydrate that our bodies can’t digest. Fiber is crucial for gut health and blood sugar control.

The Problem with Sugar

While all carbohydrates ultimately break down into glucose (sugar) in our bodies, simple carbohydrates cause the most dramatic blood sugar fluctuations. These spikes trigger a surge of the hormone insulin, which helps shuttle sugar from your bloodstream into cells.

However, chronically high insulin levels can lead to several health issues:

Insulin Resistance: When cells become less responsive to insulin, your body struggles to regulate blood sugar levels, a precursor to conditions like type 2 diabetes.
Inflammation: Elevated blood sugar and insulin promote inflammation throughout your body. This chronic inflammation is linked to various diseases, including arthritis, heart disease, and even some cancers.

Sideways picture of a right hand indicating where De Quervain's occurs

How Inflammation Impacts Hand Pain

Your hands are packed with small joints, tendons, and ligaments – all susceptible to wear and tear and the damaging effects of inflammation.

When inflammation flares, it can cause:

Joint Pain and Stiffness: Inflammation in conditions like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis directly damages cartilage and irritates joint linings.
Tendonitis: Inflammation can weaken tendons, leading to conditions like trigger finger, carpal tunnel syndrome, and De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.
Reduced Healing: Inflammation hinders your body’s natural repair processes, leading to prolonged pain and slower recovery after injuries or hand surgery.

The Carbohydrate-Inflammation Connection

Research increasingly supports the link between refined carbohydrates, sugary foods, and systemic inflammation. In her groundbreaking work, “Spoon Fed,” food scientist and researcher Tim Spector highlights how processed foods and added sugars disrupt our gut microbiome, contributing to inflammation and various health problems.
Similarly, Jessie Inchauspé, known as the “Glucose Goddess,” popularises strategies to flatten blood sugar spikes, reducing inflammation and improving overall metabolic health.

5 Simple Key Messages for Healthier Carbs

While carbs might taste great, making mindful choices can significantly impact inflammation levels and your hand health.

Here are actionable takeaways:

Prioritise Fiber-Rich Carbs: Focus on whole grains, beans, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Fiber slows digestion, moderates blood sugar spikes, and promotes a healthy gut.
Minimise Processed Foods and Added Sugars: These are often loaded with refined carbs that fuel inflammation. Read food labels carefully and limit sugary snacks and beverages.
Pair Carbs with Protein and Healthy Fats: Combining carbs with protein and fats (like nuts, seeds, or avocados) helps slow down digestion and stabilize blood sugar levels.
Timing Matters: If you enjoy starchy carbs, try having them after a workout when your muscles are better equipped to utilize the glucose.
Listen to Your Body: Everyone’s metabolism is different. Experiment to see how various carbs affect YOU. Notice any patterns between certain foods and worsened hand symptoms.

Remember

Small changes can have a lasting impact. By reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates and focusing on whole foods, you can take charge of inflammation and give your hands – and your whole body – the support they deserve. I am a huge fan of this philosophy so do bring it up when you see me although I may not shut up!

Disclaimer

The information provided in this blog is intended for general knowledge and informational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. It is essential to consult with a qualified healthcare professional for diagnosis, treatment recommendations, and any questions related to a medical condition. The author, contributors, and publisher of this blog shall not be liable for any direct or indirect losses or damages related to the use of the information presented herein.

Meet Ali Phillips, Your Orthopaedic Hand and Trauma Surgeon

Ali Phillips is a fellowship-trained hand surgeon dedicated to educating and empowering his patients. He believes in clear information and shared decision-making. When not in the clinic, you might find him wing foiling or on a cycling adventure. Connect: alistairphillips.co.uk @ali.thehandsurgeon on IG, Twitter/X, Threads, FB and TikTok

2024-06-10T17:35:35+00:00

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