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The no-jargon guide to joints, bones, & muscles

The no-jargon guide to joints, bones, & muscles

Struggling with your joints, bones, and muscles? Some research might leave your head spinning, too.

There are a lot of terms that sound confusing – but, thankfully, they’re quite easy to explain. Just check our glossary!
We’ve broken down some key words on joint, bone, and muscle health so you can understand what they mean, how they interact with each other, and better understand how to look after your body.

Amino acid:

A type of molecule that combines to make a protein – they’re known as the “building blocks” of protein. ¹

There are three types of amino acids: essential, nonessential, and conditional: ¹
  • Our body cannot make essential amino acids, so we need to get them from food.
  • But they can produce nonessential amino acids.
  • Conditional amino acids depend on the situation. They’re not usually essential, but they might be when we’re particularly ill or stressed.


A herb that’s commonly used to help soothe bruises and muscle pain. Arnica is usually available in a cream, spray, or gel that you can apply topically to the skin.

According to the European Medicines Agency, arnica has a “possible effect” in terms of improving pain intensity and bruising. However, they also said that there is insufficient evidence from current clinical trials, and they cannot draw any firm conclusions on its effectiveness.²
You shouldn’t use arnica if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, if you’re under the age of 12, or if you have an allergy to plants in the Asteracae family.³


A condition that causes pain and inflammation in the joints. ⁴

The two most common types of arthritis are: ⁴
  • Osteoarthritis: which mainly affects the smooth cartilage between your joints
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: where the body’s immune system targets affected joints

Arthritis can make your usual movement difficult or painful.

About 10 million people in the UK live with arthritis. It most often develops in those in their late 40s or older, but it can affect people of any age (including children). ⁴


Bones are the rigid organs that make up our skeleton. They help to shape and support the body, as well as protecting some of our organs. ⁵

They’re actually living tissue, made of calcium and a protein called collagen. Inside bones is bone marrow, which contains cells that produce and store blood cells. ⁶
Looking after your bone health is important to help reduce your risk of conditions like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.


The plant that produces frankincense.

It’s believed to support joint health and help reduce pain and inflammation. However, despite being used for thousands of years, further scientific research is still needed to determine its effects on joint health. ⁷
Boswellia can be taken as a supplement or applied topically as frankincense oil.


A term for teeth grinding. There are different causes, but it’s often related to stress and anxiety. Some people find they grind their teeth uncontrollably in their sleep.

It can lead to facial and jaw pain, headaches, and damaged or worn-down teeth. ⁸


An essential mineral. Calcium is most known for keeping our bones and teeth strong. However, it’s also responsible for controlling muscles and nerves.

Synaptic vesicles store neurotransmitters, which send messages to the brain to contract or relax the muscle. But these neurotransmitters need calcium in order to be released from the synaptic vesicles and send the message. ⁹
Calcium is also important for making sure blood clots normally. ¹⁰
Calcium deficiency can lead to issues with your bones, including conditions like osteoporosis in adults or rickets in children.
You should be able to get the calcium you need through a balanced diet, including calcium-rich foods like milk (dairy or fortified plant-based milk), leafy green veg, and bread. ¹⁰


A type of connective tissue that holds the body together. It’s firm, but it’s softer and more flexible than bone.

It acts as a “shock absorber” between your bones. ¹¹ But, in conditions like osteoarthritis, the cartilage between bones can wear down and cause pain, stiffness, and inflammation. ¹²


Our body’s main protein, making up about 30% of total proteins. ¹³

It’s found throughout the body, including our skin, hair, bones, tendons, ligaments, eyes, organs, and more!
There are many different types of collagen, but only 5 “main” types. The most common types in the human body are:
  • Type I: which makes up our skin, hair, nails, and bones. Type I collagen makes up about 90% of all the collagen in the body. ¹⁴
  • Type II: which supports joint and cartilage health ¹⁵
  • Type III: mainly responsible for collagen in the muscles, organs, and arteries. ¹⁶


A “building block” of cartilage. It also helps cartilage retain its water content, keeping it supple and elastic. ¹⁷

There are some studies that suggest chondroitin can help prevent cartilage breakdown; however, it’s worth noting that many others have shown no benefit. ¹⁷ However, it’s not recommended by the National Insititute for Care and Excellence (NICE) as a treatment for osteoarthritis. ¹⁸


Painful, involuntary muscle contractions. You might get them after an injury or if your muscles are particularly tired – but sometimes they can happen for seemingly no reason.

Cramps tend to go away on their own, but you should seek medical advice if they don’t stop or they’re causing you extreme pain. ¹⁹
You can help to prevent some cramps, like leg cramps, by regularly stretching your muscles. ²⁰


A substance that naturally occurs in the body and in some food, like meat. Some people take creatine supplements as it’s believed to help with supporting muscles during intense exercise.

Devil’s claw:

plant named after its spiky fruit.

According to the British Herbal Medicine Association (BHMA), some devil’s claw products may be used to help ease joint and muscle pain. ²¹
The extract is usually made from the dried root of the plant, and you can find supplements in teas, tablets, and capsules.
It’s considered safe for most people, but you should speak to your GP before taking devil’s claw supplements.

Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS):

A type of physical therapy used to help relax tight muscles. It uses an EMS machine, which delivers tiny electrical impulses to the muscles to make them contract.

When the muscle contracts, it increases blood flow, helping the muscle to repair itself.

Fish oils:

A dietary supplement derived from fatty fish.

Fish oils are a rich source of omega-3, which can help protect our heart health. ²² Your body can’t make omega-3 on its own, so it’s important to obtain it through a balanced diet.
Where this isn’t possible, you might take omega-3 supplements like fish oil instead (though you should speak to your GP first).


A compound found naturally in cartilage. Its primary function is to help develop and maintain the protective cartilage around the joints. ²³

We produce less glucosamine with age, increasing the risk of age-related joint and bone conditions. ²⁴


The most abundant amino acid in the body. There are two types: L-glutamine and D-glutamine.

Glutamine works alongside other amino acids to help build and maintain the skin, organs, and body tissues. However, it’s also thought to support immune function and muscle recovery. ²⁵ ²⁶
We usually get all the glutamine we need from our body and our diet; it can be found in leafy vegetables, meat and dairy products, and beans. ²⁷ ²⁸


A type of arthritis that causes sudden and severe joint pain. It’s caused by having too much uric acid in the body.

Gout usually gets better after about a week with treatment. Untreated or chronic gout may cause longer-term damage to the joints. ²⁹


When your body senses something dangerous (like bacteria or a virus), it sends an alert to your immune system. The immune system releases inflammatory cells to trap the danger and begin to help heal the affected area. ³⁰

When this process happens, you might see redness, swelling, or bruising. This is called acute inflammation and it’s an immediate response to an injury or infection.
However, inflammation can also happen when there’s no danger. It’s possible to experience chronic inflammation, where the inflammation persists even when the original cause is no longer present. Chronic inflammation is a slow, long-term type of inflammation and can last for weeks or months.


A joint is where two bones meet to allow movement. Almost every bone in your body is attached to a joint.

They can take different shapes and structures, like the “ball and socket” joint of a hipbone or the “hinge” joint of the knee. ³¹
Joints are held together by strong tissue called ligaments. Cartilage sits between the joints to prevent friction as the bones move and rub against each other.
Some more flexible joints are surrounded by fluid (called synovial fluid) to help lubricate them and provide extra cushioning. ³²


Ever felt a sensitive lump of muscle in your back? That’s a knot.

Knots are points of tense and tight muscle that don’t relax. They’re usually harmless, but they can feel sore and tender to touch.
You can help release a knot by gently massaging it.


A type of tissue that usually connects bones together at a joint. Ligaments are tough and fibrous and contain lots of collagen. ³³

The body has over 900 ligaments of different shapes and sizes. As well as connecting bones, they can also hold organs in place. ³⁴
It’s possible to tear a ligament through injury; this is called a sprain.


An essential mineral that helps the body turn food into energy, as well as supporting bone health. ³⁵

But magnesium plays a part in over 300 different functions in the body. Nerves need magnesium to send and receive messages, and muscles need it to function properly. ³⁶
Women aged 19 to 64 need 270mg of magnesium per day, and men of the same age need 300mg. ³⁶
It’s best to get magnesium through your diet where you can: good sources include spinach, nuts, and wholemeal bread. ³⁶

Massage gun:

A handheld device that vibrates to massage sore muscles. They can be used to ease discomfort or help to increase mobility in stiff and tight muscles.

Most massage guns will have different speeds and come with different attachments to target specific areas.


The soft, stretchy tissues that allow us to move. Muscles relax and contract, moving other parts of the body like joints.

There are more than 600 muscles in the human body. Many of them help keep you strong and active, but others are responsible for functions you might not even think about: the heart itself is a muscle!
You can help to keep your muscles healthy by exercising regularly, following a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting plenty of rest. ³⁷

Musculoskeletal system:

This includes your bones, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and other connective tissues. ³⁸ It may also be called the skeletal system.

Together, the musculoskeletal system helps the body to move.


A type of arthritis that affects the bones. The protective cartilage between the joints begins to wear down, causing the joints to become painful and stiff.

Sometimes, sharp and sore bone growths may also develop.
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the UK, affecting about 8.5 million people. ³⁹
Factors like age, family history, and lifestyle can increase your risk, but anyone can experience it. ¹²


A condition that weakens the bones and makes them more porous. People with osteoporosis might fracture or break their bones more easily than people without it.

Osteoporosis usually develops slowly over time and people may not know they have it until they’ve broken a bone.
You can help keep your bones healthy by eating a balanced diet full of vitamin D and calcium, getting plenty of exercise, and reducing certain lifestyle factors like smoking and drinking alcohol. ⁴⁰


The position you hold your body in while standing, sitting, or lying down.

“Good posture” places the least amount of strain on the bones and muscles, keeping them healthier in the long term. It also helps to reduce wear and tear between the joints. ⁵¹
Good posture might look like standing up straight, or keeping your weight evenly balanced throughout your body. Bad posture can look like slouching or “abnormal” body positions.
Bad posture can cause aches and pains, and over time it may contribute to more serious damage and increase your risk of conditions like osteoarthritis. ¹²


When our body breaks downs proteins (during digestion, for example), the amino acids are left behind. They perform a wide range of functions in our body, including: ⁴²

  • Breaking down food and turning it into energy
  • Making hormones
  • Supporting our immune system
  • Building and repairing tissue


Also known as rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatism is a condition that causes stiffness, swelling, and pain in the joints.

Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease (which means it affects your immune system). It mistakenly triggers inflammation and sends the immune system to attack the joints – which should only happen if there is danger there. ⁴³

It’s less common than osteoarthritis: rheumatism affects about 400,000 people in the UK. ⁴⁴

Shin splints:

A type of pain in your shins, usually caused by exercise.

It can be caused by: ⁴⁵
  • A sudden change in your activity level
  • Running on very hard or uneven ground
  • Poor running form
  • Wearing poorly-fitting shoes
Shin splints are not usually serious and should go away on their own after a few weeks, but they may be painful enough to stop you from exercising.
You should not continue exercising in the same way if you have shin splints. Get plenty of rest, then build up your activity little by little and make sure you warm up and cool down properly. Exercise on softer ground during recovery. ⁴⁵

Skeletal system:

Another word for the musculoskeletal system. It comprises of your bones, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and other connective tissues.

The skeletal system works together to help the body to move. ⁴⁶

Sports massage:

A type of massage that targets the muscles used in a specific sport. It’s designed to help increase circulation, reduce tension, and support muscle recovery. ⁴⁷

It might be used as part of a warmup or cool down after strenuous exercise. Sports massage may also be used as a type of therapy following muscle injuries.


A stretch or a tear in a ligament. This is different to a strain, which affects muscles and tendons.

Sprains can be painful and they can take a few weeks to feel better. You should avoid strenuous exercise for up to 8 weeks following a sprain, as you might do further damage if you start again too early. ⁴⁸


Limited or uncomfortable movement, especially in a muscle or joint. Stiffness might happen:

  • If you’ve had an injury
  • If you don’t move certain parts of your body often
  • If you have a condition that affects your joints, bones, or muscles


Unlike a sprain, a strain is a tear or stretch in a muscle or tendon.

You should still rest if you’ve got a strain, but you may recover a little more quickly than with a sprain; it’s usually about 2-4 weeks for a muscle strain and 6 weeks for a tendon strain.

Synovial fluid:

The fluid that sits between and around the joints, keeping them well-lubricated (for good movement) and cushioned against impact.


A type of tissue that usually connects muscles to bones. However, it can also connect muscles to other parts of the body. Eyeballs are held in place by tendons, for example! ⁴⁹

Tendons are strong, flexible, and fibrous tissue – a bit like a rope. You might also hear it called a sinew.


A swelling of the tendon, usually after an injury.

You might have pain and swelling in the tendon, and you may find it difficult to move your joint. You could also feel a “grating” sensation when you try to move the affected area. ⁵⁰
Although they both affect tendons, tendonitis is a bit different to a strain. A strain affects the muscle itself; tendonitis causes pain where the muscle attaches to the bone. ⁵¹

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS):

A type of pain relief that delivers tiny electrical impulses to the affected area to block pain messages.

TENS is slightly different to electrical muscle stimulation (EMS). It’s used as a method of pain relief, whereas EMS is used to help relax contracted muscles.


A spice that comes from the root of the turmeric plant. You might recognise it by its bright orange or yellow colour.

Turmeric has been used for thousands of years for cooking, as well as for religious and medicinal purposes. ⁵² It’s been used as a natural remedy for rheumatism and to support joint health.
Its active ingredient is curcumin, which can help reduce inflammation and may support digestion. ⁵³ ⁵⁴