Chronic neck pain and chronic inflammation typically coexist. For neck pain that has lasted months despite multiple treatments, it may be worthwhile to explore an anti-inflammatory diet.

How Certain Foods May Reduce Inflammation

Part of the body’s normal metabolic process includes the creation of free radicals, which are highly reactive atoms or molecules due to having an unpaired electron looking to become paired. An imbalance can occur if too many free radicals are left floating around to steal electrons from nearby molecules. This imbalance, also known as oxidative stress, can contribute to chronic inflammation within the body.

Antioxidants are molecules capable of remaining stable (nonreactive) while donating an electron to neutralize a free radical. The more free radicals that can be neutralized by antioxidants, the less damage and inflammation they can cause in the body. In theory, foods that are high in antioxidants may be able to neutralize greater numbers of free radicals and reduce inflammation.

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How to Start an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

There are numerous variations for how to adhere to an anti-inflammatory diet. Rather than focus on a strict list of recipes that must be followed, it may help to instead consider some basic guidelines:

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Having at least 1 serving of vegetables at each meal, and 2 servings of fruit each day is typically recommended.2,7,8 Eating a wide variety of colors covers more of the spectrum of different antioxidants.
  • Choose healthier fats. Unsaturated fats are preferable, such as those found in olive oil, flaxseed, almonds, walnuts, fatty fish, and other foods. Saturated fats are more inflammatory, such as the fats found in butter and cheese.
  • Enjoy fish at least twice a week. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids are considered to have anti-inflammatory properties. Some examples include salmon and sardines.
  • Limit meats. Lean meats, such as chicken or turkey, are less inflammatory than red meats, such as beef. Beef that has been grass fed is less inflammatory and a better choice than cows raised in standard feedlots and fed corn.
  • Get more protein from legumes. Beans, nuts, peas, and lentils can be worked into the diet as high-antioxidant sources of protein.
  • Choose whole grains. When possible, opt for whole grains instead of refined grains. For example, whole-grain versions of bread, brown rice, pasta, and oatmeal are more nutritious and less inflammatory.
  • Avoid heavily-processed foods. Foods processed to last longer tend to have less nutrition and more inflammation-causing chemicals added. Examples to limit or avoid include commercial baked goods, prepackaged meals, refined sugars (soda, candy), processed meats (bacon, sausage, ham), and numerous others.

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The potential benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet may not be noticed for several weeks. It is important to consistently stick with the commitment for more than a month before deciding if anti-inflammatory foods are having a positive effect.

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Efficacy of Anti-Inflammatory Diets

Currently, there are no high-quality scientific studies that show chronic neck pain can be reduced by an anti-inflammatory diet. However, there is some evidence that anti-inflammatory foods can help reduce inflammation and may lower some types of pain, such as pain from obesity or various types of arthritis.9,10 The Mediterranean diet and DASH diet are both well-known for including anti-inflammatory foods and have been linked to better heart health and lower risks for disease.3,4,11 The Mediterranean diet has also shown benefits for people who have rheumatoid arthritis.12 While there are some promising studies, whether an anti-inflammatory diet can reduce pain is still being debated by the medical community, and more research is needed.

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Potential Risks and Complications

While anti-inflammatory diets are considered healthy, there are still risks to consider:

  • Fish may contain higher levels of mercury and other toxins. Most fish accumulate at least some toxins from where they swim and what they eat. Relatively small cold-water fish, such as wild-caught salmon, tend to have less mercury and toxins compared to fish that are larger or raised in a farm.
  • Food choices must be made on a case-by-case basis. Just because a food is considered a normal part of an anti-inflammatory diet does not mean everyone should consume it. For example, some people might have an allergy to wheat or fish. Also, while moderate red wine consumption may have an anti-inflammatory effect, it is not recommended for people who have a health reason or preference to avoid alcohol.

In addition, an anti-inflammatory diet is not a greenlight for overeating. Too much food can still lead to dangerous nutritional imbalances or obesity, both of which can cause inflammation and other health issues. A doctor or nutritionist should be consulted before making any drastic changes to a diet.


  1. MyPlate. United States Department of Agriculture Web site. Accessed February 6, 2018.
  2. DASH eating plan. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, National Institutes of Health Web site. Accessed February 6, 2018.
  3. Emery CF, Olson KLL, Bodine A, Lee V, Habash DL. Dietary intake mediates the relationship of body fat to pain. Pain. 2017; 158(2): 273-77.

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