By Isaac White, L.Ac.
May is here and spring has finally sprung. Spring, a time of rebirth, is the often the time to when people clean house, plant fresh flowers and decide to finally enact that New Year’s resolution to get active and fit. However, if you are suffering from arthritis pain, then this resolution may get put back on the back burner. Current statistics show that over 54 million US adults have been diagnosed with some form of arthritis (1). However, this is not just a disease of the older population because it is reported that almost 300,000 babies and children suffer from arthritis, or some form of rheumatic disease as well (2). It is estimated that by the year 2040 more than 78 million adults will be diagnosed with some form of arthritis (3). May has also been designated as National Arthritis Month, and so it seems appropriate to address arthritis and what Chinese medicine can do to help.
First, it is important to figure out what we are dealing with. Arthritis is literally defined as “joint inflammation”. However, the term arthritis is commonly used to refer to disorders that affect the joints. There are many types of arthritis that affect the body. According to the Center for Disease Control, the following are the most common types of arthritis (4):
Ankylosing Spondylitis is arthritis that affects the spine. It often involves redness, heat, swelling, and pain in the spine or in the joint where the bottom of the spine joins the pelvic bone.
Gout is caused by crystals that build up in the joints. It usually affects the big toe, but many other joints may be affected.
Juvenile Arthritis is the term used to describe arthritis in children. Arthritis is caused by inflammation of the joints.
Osteoarthritis usually comes with age and most often affects the fingers, knees, and hips. Sometimes osteoarthritis follows a joint injury. For example, you might have badly injured your knee when young and develop arthritis in your knee joint years later.
Psoriatic Arthritis can occur in people who have psoriasis (scaly red and white skin patches). It affects the skin, joints, and areas where tissues attach to bone.
Reactive Arthritis is pain or swelling in a joint that is caused by an infection in your body. You may also have red, swollen eyes and a swollen urinary tract
Rheumatoid arthritis happens when the body’s own defense system doesn’t work properly. It affects joints and bones (often of the hands and feet), and may also affect internal organs and systems. You may feel sick or tired, and you may have a fever.
These are just a few of the most common types of arthritis that people suffer from, however, there are more than 100 different types of arthritis that can be diagnosed!
The most common complaint that people have when dealing with arthritis is pain, usually in the affected joints or areas close to the joints.
Common western treatments used to treat the symptoms of arthritis include:
Heating pad application
Cold compress/Ice packs
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
However, many of the treatments may not be effective for very long and can leave the patients dealing with harsh and annoying side effects.
Traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture have been shown to reduce inflammation and pain that is associated with arthritis, and when administered by a licensed acupuncturist, the risk for injury and adverse side effects are very low. The following article printed in 2015 showed acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine to be effective in treating Rheumatoid Arthritis.
There is another article that was published recently in 2017 that showed that a key biological marker had been identified, quantified, and directly correlated with the application of acupuncture. This research is further evidence that acupuncture is an effective form of treatment to reduce inflammation.
Another modality that can be integrated into most existing health plans is the addition of Chinese herbal medicines. Several Chinese medicinal herbs have been scientifically shown to reduce inflammation in the body which will, in turn, reduce arthritis. A review published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine in 2014 discussed several Chinese herbs that can be used individually, or combined in a formula, to effectively in reduce inflammation in the body.
By utilizing a trained Traditional Chinese medicinal herbalist, your ideal formulation can be discovered and incorporated into your health regiment, which can allow you to access the path to optimal health.
Of course, there is plenty that can be done outside of the treatment room that can allow you to reduce inflammation and arthritis. Both western and Chinese medicinal practitioners agree that changing diet and exercise habits can greatly improve your arthritis pain and inflammation. Avoiding inflammatory foods in one’s diet can greatly reduce the body’s overall inflammation and quickly improve arthritis symptoms. It should be noted that many foods are considered inflammatory, and this list will change from practitioner to practitioner. Of course, if you have food allergies, such as gluten problems or nut allergies, you should avoid these foods because they have a possibility of initiating a severe inflammatory reaction. In general, the following food substances have been associated with higher amounts of inflammation:
Sugar, especially refined sugar
Processed foods of any kind
Trans fats, and heavy oily/fried foods
Meat, esp. red meat
* Although technically not a process of eating, smoking (anything) is a leading source of lung inflammation.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you must give up all these foods all at once. Try and reduce the overall amounts that you ingest, and if you do eat any of these foods, moderation is key. It is important that you give your body enough time to process and recover from these foods.
The second area that can have a major impact on your life with minimal effort is adding a half hour of exercise to your day at least 3 times a week. Exercise has been shown to be one of the most effective ways for the body to lower its inflammatory state. Walking, tai chi and yoga are three minimally impactful exercises that can be great for reducing the body’s overall inflammation. However, people with severe arthritis and pain should consult their medical practitioner to find what exercise is most appropriate for their situation.
So whatever way you choose to fight inflammation, whether it be through diet or exercise or through acupuncture and herbs, it will be the first step towards alleviating the pain and suffering from your arthritis.