The arthritic diseases revolve around degeneration of bone and cartilage and can be due to infection, trauma, and inflammation, or autoimmune degradation of tissue. The word arthritis means, from the Greek, inflammation of a joint, but is not a specific medical term. Not all arthritic diseases present with inflammation, but most involve chronic pain and loss of movement. Arthritis is a serious disease that affects over 37 million Americans, which means one in seven people, or one in three families.
There are over 100 different types of “œarthritis” that affect people of all ages. If you have arthritis, it’s important to get a correct diagnosis because treatments vary for each type. The most common type of arthritis (7% of the population) is osteoarthritis, whose cause is probably wear-and-tear of the large, weight-bearing joints. Osteoarthritis (also known as degenerative joint disease, “DJD”) seems to be related to certain types of occupational stress, possibly to injuries, to heredity, and to being overweight. One percent of the U.S. population suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, which is thought to be a hereditary, auto-immune disease and affects primarily the smaller joints of the hands and feet. Other kinds of arthritis include infectious arthritis, gout, psoriatic arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (Lupus), Lyme disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, fibromyalgia, juvenile arthritis, etc.
Early warning signs of various arthritic diseases are:
- Swelling in one or more joints
- Early morning stiffness
- Recurring pain or tenderness in any joint
- Inability to move a joint normally
- Obvious redness and warmth in a joint
- Unexplained weight loss, fever or weakness combined with joint pain
- Symptoms like these persisting for more than two weeks
The conventional medical establishment “treats” arthritis with anti-inflammatory drugs, from non-steroidal (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen, to hormone-like steroidal drugs such as cortisone and prednisone. Aspirin is quite effective in relieving both the pain and the inflammation of many arthritic diseases and is inexpensive. However, since the therapeutic dose is high, toxicity often occurs, such as tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and gastric irritation. Other non-steroidals can work well initially also, where aspirin is not tolerated, but also have unpleasant side-effects such as gastrointestinal upset, headaches, and dizziness. One side effect of aspirin and other NSAIDs that is often not mentioned is their inhibition of cartilage repair and acceleration of cartilage destruction in experimental studies. Since many arthritic diseases involve degeneration of cartilage it appears that while NSAIDs are fairly effective in suppressing the symptoms, they possibly worsen the condition by inhibiting cartilage formation and accelerating cartilage destruction.
If these conservative treatments donâ€™t work, more aggressive tactics are available. Gold salt injections, for example, help about 60% of patients, but one-third of these experience severe side-effects. The last resort is a surgical joint replacement.
Naturopathic treatments emphasize prevention. For example, many early sufferers of arthritis experience a significant reduction in symptoms by avoiding caffeine, alcohol, strong spices including salt, refined sugar, refined flour, red meat, dairy products and the “nightshade” vegetables. The “nightshades” (or Solanaceae) are eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and tobacco. If total “abstinence” from the food products is impossible, minimizing consumption is certainly a good second best.
Rest, relaxation and adequate sleep are key in preserving the quality of your life despite arthritis. Arthritis is most often a systemic problem and is thus often accompanied by a low-grade fever and fatigue.
Exercise, particularly non-weight bearing exercise such as swimming, is crucial. Daily gentle aerobics along with range-of-motion (ROM) work, such as stretching, and strengthening and endurance exercises help offset fatigue as well as maximizing joint function.
Infectious arthritis is quite common and most be investigated with any arthritic presentation. A strep or proteus infection can be treated with a course of antibiotics quite effectively. Make sure your doctor does tests to rule out these causes.
Which leads into the importance of being an active partner with your doctor in caring for your arthritis. Learn about your type of arthritis; write down questions as they arise, then ask the doctor at your visit. Get written information about your specific type of arthritis from your doctor, and find out about support groups, especially exercise support groups. Follow the doctorâ€™s advice; finding the right treatment may take time, and will certainly require patience. Beware of miracle cure treatments.
Keep doing the exercises and keep taking the recommended medications, be they allopathic or traditional. You will have “good” and “bad” days nevertheless. Generally, it is best to exercise during the times of the day in which you typically have the least amount of pain. Exercise in a smooth, steady rhythm.
Daily home treatments such as maintaining good posture, talking about your feelings, balancing work with rest and using hot/cold compresses will all provide not only immediate but long-term relief. The idea with the alternating hot and cold wrung-out towels is that the hot promotes blood flow to the area, and the cold constricts the local vessels, thus shunting the blood away, allowing for fresh blood to pour in, in effect creating a local “pump.” It is best to use 2 minutes of very hot (not burning) followed by 30 seconds of ICE cold, and repeat at least three times. Always end with cold.
Traditional medical remedies include all the flavone-containing plants, particularly blueberries, blackberries and hawthorne berries. The bioflavonoids inhibit a natural irritant, and a by-product of protein metabolism called hyaluronic acid.
Dr. Bastyr recommends avoiding carbonated drinks, and drinking plain water 10 minutes before meals, but not during or after meals, so as not to compromise the potency of the stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Topical applications of fresh comfrey leaves, or castor oil, or hot paraffin, or Epsom salts, or cayenne pepper, camphor, aconite and wintergreen oil all have significant therapeutic benefits. There is also a famous “Formula A” made of equal parts devil’s claw, yucca and chaparral.
Some people find great relief from homeopathic remedies, in particular, Rhus tox, Metorrhimun, Bryonia, Causticum, Ledum, Pulsatilla, Sanguinaria, Arnica and Calc. carb. Make sure your Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, and Sodium are balanced; and beware of decrease stomach acid, which is quite common in arthritis patients.
Fragments of undigested food passing into the blood and settling in the joints may well be a cause of osteo and rheumatoid arthritis, and is certainly the cause of gout. So-called anti-oxidants such as Vitamins C, E, and A, selenium, and zinc are important to minimize tissue damage throughout. A very powerful antioxidant (“free radical scavenger”) called super-oxide dismutase (SOD), injected, is supposed to work as well as injected gold salts, without nearly the incidence of side effects. It can be obtained from local veterinarians.
Last but not least is meditation, biofeedback, mental imagery, positive thinking all help affect the immune system via the endocrine system by way of the nervous system. The field of knowledge that supports such reasoning is the fascinating and promising field of psychoneuroimmunology. A big word to say that not only are you what you eat but also what you think.
A toll-free number for basic information on arthritis, or finding your local Arthritis Foundation chapter is 1-800-542-0295.
- Arthritis Foundation, Washington State Chapter, various brochures, 100 South King St., Suite 300, Seattle WA 98104
- class notes, Bastyr College of Natural Health Sciences, Seattle, WA, 1990-92.
- Merck Manual, 15th Edition
- Murray, M and Pizzorno, J “Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine,” Prima Publishing, Rocklin CA 1990