By the time we reach 50 years of age, most of us will have some degree of osteoarthritis (OA). Almost all vertebrates are affected, even whales and fish. OA is not a new fangled disease, skeletons of mummified Egyptians and bones of brontosauruses have revealed arthritic changes. The only vertebrates who don’t get OA are bats and sloths; the one activity they share is hanging upside down.
Also known as degenerative joint disease, OA occurs when the cartilage between bones degenerates. Cartilage acts like a shock absorber between the bones of joints such as the hip, knee, fingers and between the vertebrae of the back. As cartilage degenerates, the poor old bones will grind against each other causing inflammation and pain. As a protective measure, the bones get a little thicker and can even form bony spurs. This, in turn, inhibits mobility and makes movement painful.
- Pain and or tenderness.
- Stiffness, particularly in the morning or after not moving for a while.
- Limitation of movement around the affected joint.
- Crepitus, a creaking, grinding sound and feeling.
- Deformed joints
What causes it?
- Overuse or injury to a joint can lead to arthritis later in life. Football and other sports injuries or work-related, especially from heavy lifting, repetitive factory line work or an accident. Operations on the joints may also prove to be trouble spots in the years to come.
- Genetics plays a role. If your parents or grandparents were troubled with arthritis, your chances of OA are higher. The time to be treating OA is at the first sign of pain or stiffness or if arthritic changes have been revealed in an X-ray. Treat before more damage occurs. - Overweight. Carrying extra kilograms places extra strain on the joints.
- Joint misalignment. A genetically out of place joint will lead to extra wear-and-tear and ultimately OA will set in.
- Naturopathically, arthritis is considered as an ‘acidic’ condition. This slight change in the body chemistry towards acidity can be caused by the food we eat, injury or stress. The acidity here does not refer to heartburn, but a slight change in the tissue pH. Treating the acidity is treating the arthritis.
- Food allergy is rarely a cause, but it may make matters worse. The three main culprits are wheat, oranges and tomatoes.
What to do
Osteoarthritis takes its time to appear and treatment may also take a while. The success of treatment depends on the extent of the arthritis. If your joints are very damaged (this can be seen by X-ray) recovery will be slower than if damage is minimal. If degeneration is severe, full movement of the afflicted joint will probably not be restored, but hopefully there will be less pain and further damage may be halted.
Aspirin and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen and indomethacin are often given to ease the pain of arthritis. Although NSAIDs may be effective in easing pain, be wary of them for three reasons. Firstly, they commonly cause gastritis and stomach ulcers. Secondly, a little known side-effect of gastritis and stomach ulcers is that the lining of the gut becomes more permeable or ‘leaky’, increasing the risk of food allergy. And thirdly, NSAIDs accelerate cartilage destruction. This means that by buying temporary relief with these drugs now, you are paying for future damage. Natural pain relievers are mentioned below.
- Eat fish 3to 4 times a week. The omega 3 fatty acid, EPA, found in fish is anti-inflammatory. Fish containing the most EPA are the fattier fish such as sardines, salmon, mullet, halibut, trout and tuna.
- Increase fluid. Cartilage consists of about 80 per cent water, which partially explains its cushioning effect. Even without OA, after a day in the vertical position we are all about 1 cm shorter than when we left our beds in the morning. This is because the cartilage has been squashed. Drink plenty of fluids, at least 1.5 litres each day.
- Reduce acid-forming and increase alkaline-forming foods. Acid-forming foods include grains, meat, sugar, egg yolk and prawns. Alkalising foods include all fruits and vegetables. Vegetable juices are very alkalising as the concentrate all the alkalising minerals. Drink 1 to 2 juices daily. One carrot and ginger juice and one ‘green’ juice made from all the green vegetables you can find such as beetroot tops, celery, parsley and cucumber.
- Best foods for OA include alfalfa, wheatgrass, watercress, potatoes, yams, celery, parsley, garlic, comfrey, endive, pineapple, bananas, cherries, blackcurrants, mango, kiwi fruit and blueberries.
- Avoid allergens. The tomato is often cited as a culprit in arthritis. The theory about the evils of tomatoes was first promulgated in the 1950s by an American, Norman F. Childers. Tomatoes and, to a lesser extent, other members of the Solanaceae family (potatoes, eggplants, chillies, capsicum), contain alkaloids that promote degeneration of the joint, and inhibit repair of mucopolysaccharides. To test whether tomatoes are a problem for you, avoid them completely for one month, then have a tomato feast, with tomatoes at every meal for one day. If your joints are more painful a couple of days after this, chances are tomatoes should be avoided forever. However, if you feel no different by avoiding tomatoes….then they are not a problem for you. The same goes for other potential allergens such as oranges and wheat….if the shoe does not fit, do not wear it.
- Turmeric, the yellow spice has anti-inflammatory properties. If you already love curry, further your passion.
- Mucopolysaccharides. Substances known as mucopolysaccharides (also known as proteoglycans and glucosamines) increase the elasticity and bounce in cartilage. With encroaching osteoarthritis, mucopolysaccharides in the body can diminish by half. Foods containing mucopolysaccharides include tripe, oysters, oats, Irish moss, mussels, calf trachea, aloe and okra. If these foods don’t rock your culinary boat, don’t fret, supplements of the active ingredient are available.
- Fish oil contains the omega 3 fatty acid, EPA, and is brilliant for relieving the symptoms of arthritis. However, you need to take a fair bit, that is, 10 to 15 mls daily to make an impact. Given the quantity you need to consume, liquid supplementation makes better economic and psychological sense. After all that’s 10 to 15 capsules you need to swallow.
- Glucosamine is the other supplement that is really very good for osteoarthritis. Most often prescribed as glucosamine sulfate, it reduces pain and increases movement, as importantly (and in contrast to pharmaceutical medication), glucosamine helps to regrow cartilage, which is damaged in osteoarthritis. You need to take around 2 g daily. Chondroitin (a similar compound to glucasamine) is often used alongside glucosamine.
- Curcumin is a constituent of turmeric, the yellow curry spice. It has many properties including being antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
- Herbal remedies can be transformative for the OA sufferer. However, every case of OA is unique, and the herb one person finds helpful, may not help another’s pain. The following herbs are worth trying alone or in combination. Take the highest recommended dose for one month before making a judgment; ginger, turmeric, boswellia, devil’s claw, celery seed, guaiacum, willow bark
- An oldie and still a goodie, this traditional Vermont remedy will help digestion and hopefully your arthritis. One teaspoon of apple cider vinegar and one teaspoon of honey in hot water, drink first thing each morning before breakfast.
- Silicea and Nat phos – these tissue salts are recommended for OA. Silicea (and it’s big brother mineral silicon) is known as a calcium reorganiser, helping to break down bony spurs at the same time strengthening cartilage. Nat phos is the alkalising tissue salt.
- Take a decent multivitamin tablet daily to provide the micronutrients necessary for the synthesis of collagen and maintenance of normal cartilage. These micronutrients include zinc, manganese, copper, boron, bioflavonoids and vitamins A, E and B6.
- Methionine is a sulphur-containing amino acid that maintains cartilage structures. It is both analgesic (pain relieving) and anti-inflammatory. Studies have shown when administered in the form S-adenosyl-methionine (SAM), this amino acid has been found in studies to be superior to ibuprofen in the treatment of OA.
- Hot compresses and poultices give immediate relief, so use when pain is bad. Choose from one or more of the following:
- Ginger compresses. Grate a cupful of ginger on the middle of a kitchen wipe or muslin cloth, and fold to form a ginger parcel. Place in a shallow bowl and pour over half a cup of boiling water. Leave until bearably hot. Gently squeeze and place on the painful area, then wrap the body part and parcel with plastic wrap. Wrap again in a towel, then relax and keep warm for twenty minutes before unpeeling.
- Castor oil packs. Heat 3 to 4 tablespoons castor oil, then saturate a face cloth with the oil. Place cloth on the affected area and cover with plastic wrap, then a towel and rest for 30 minutes. Stick a hot water bottle or heating pad over the towel.
- Heat paraffin wax until it is above blood temperature, but not hot enough to burn… up to about 51°C. Dip the affected joint in the warm wax, remove when cooled. The wax may be reused. This treatment is especially good for OA of the hands.
- Acupuncture can be excellent for OA, particularly to relieve the inflammation and improve mobility.
- The subtle body work methods such as Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais will improve mobility and teach how to move your body with less strain.
- Copper is necessary for collagen and cartilage synthesis. Try rubbing a little copper chelate ointment onto the affected joints. This may be why copper bracelets help some people.
- Exercise is vital for the person living with OA. However, any jolting exercise such as jogging should be avoided. It’s a case of use it or lose it. It is necessary to move every joint as the cartilage degenerates if there is no movement in a particular joint. Swimming or aquarobics is particulary recommended as being joint-friendly exercise
- It is worth spending the money on a pair of good, cushioned shoes to prevent jarring the joints.
- Rest. When we are active, the cartilage compresses and a good rest in the horizontal position allows it to rehydrate.
- Act like a bat (or sloth). Try out an inversion table.
- If you are carrying excess kilos, get rid of them as extra weight increases stress on the joints.
- 2 drops of fennel sweet – anti-inflammatory, detoxifying, stimulating.
- 3 drops of ginger – analgesic, antispasmodic, warming.
- 4 drops of german chamomile – excellent for inflamed joints, analgesic, anti-inflammatory.
- 6 drops of lavender spike - analgesic, decongestant.
To use this wonderful soothing blend, mix with 15 ml sweet almond oil and 5 ml St John’s Wort and apply to the affected area as needed. You can also sprinkle 8 drops of the essential oil blend into some cool water and use as a cool compress as needed. Use 10 drops of the essential oil blend in 125 g Epsom salt in a hand, foot or full body bath.
At a glance
- Eat fish 3 to 4 times a week. Especially the high omega 3 fatty acid kinds such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, trout and tuna.
- Foods that improve OA include alfalfa, wheatgrass, watercress, potatoes, yams, celery, parsley, garlic, comfrey, pineapple, bananas, cherries, blueberries, cherries, apples.
- Reduce acid-forming foods in the diet, such as red meat, sugar, grains, and increase alkalising foods, fruit and vegetables.
- Fish oil is fab. You need to take at least 10 mls daily to see the benefits.
- Glucosamine has anti-inflammatory properties and helps to maintain the synovial membrane that protects the joint.
- Herbs to try include boswellia, turmeric, white willow, ginger and celery seed.
- Gentle exercise that improves muscle strenth and preserves mobility such as swimming, Tai chi.
- Acupuncture can be very effective particularly for pain.
- Lose weight if you are carrying extra kilos, excess weight only makes arthritis worse.