Arthritis (Osteoarthritis)  

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Finding a good herbalist

Much of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here

Drugs; pain relief at a heavy cost

The long-term conventional treatment of osteoarthritis involves substances called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). Steroidal injections or pills may also be temporarily used in advanced conditions.

Such drugs may be necessary, especially in the short term, to bring down a level of pain or immobility that is simply unacceptable however, real problems can arise when these drugs are used long-term.

Some of the side effects of aspirin and other NSAIDS, e.g. voltaren, indomethacin, naproxen and ibuprofen, are well known, they include headaches, dizziness and indigestion and more serious dangers such as ulcers and internal bleeding.

What is hardly known at all is that experimental studies have shown that NSAIDS inhibit cartilage synthesis and actually accelerate cartilage destruction. In other words, these drugs can be expected to increase the rate of degeneration within the joints.

In light of this, several studies have attempted to determine the ‘natural course’ of arthritis whereby scientists have sought to determine what happens when people with osteoarthritis are given no treatment at all!

One group of researchers studied the natural course of osteoarthritis of the hip over a ten-year period. At the beginning of the study, all subjects had x-ray changes suggestive of advanced osteoarthritis, yet many of them reported significant improvements over the decade. X-rays confirmed these improvements, including a complete recovery in 14 of 31 hips.

These results, and others, raise the real concern that medical intervention with anti-inflammatory drugs may actually promote the progression of osteoarthritis!

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Can you really help arthritis?

The short answer to can you really help arthritis is 'yes', but only slowly and carefully. You must find out what is both safe and effective and then just stick with it, however long it takes.

What follows is a detailed description of the things or approaches that have been found to help some people but, nothing works for everyone, you not only must be prepared to be patient; you also must be prepared to experiment, and that means properly, not just for a day or two. Then you discard the things that don’t help and keep the things that do, and eventually you start getting better.

Arthritis is usually blamed on 'wear and tear through aging'. This is not untrue, age is a part of the picture, but only a part, because many people get old with little trouble in their joints.

Along with aging, there is always at least one factor that is driving the problem, such as:

  • an accumulation of toxicity in the joints
  • something causing harm from the diet
  • something missing in the diet
  • unhealed injuries
  • poor circulation to the joints
  • repetitive strain to the inflamed joint or joints

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Cleansing

An
accumulation of toxicity in the joints is a major contributor to arthritis and a consistent practice throughout all the old systems of medicine has been to remove toxic accumulations from affected joints. This has been done through direct measures typically involving heat, more about that later, and through following a program of internal cleansing or detoxification.

If you have a reason to believe that your system is likely to need cleansing, e.g. any kind of history of poor skin, bowel or kidney health, then taking certain herbs and eating a cleansing diet may be an essential first step in starting a healing process in any damaged joint.

If you just don't know, then there is still a case to be made for doing a cleansing program for not less than one month and not more than two, and simply seeing what difference it makes for yourself.

The use of certain herbal medicines should be considered as essential for such a cleansing program and some key examples are given below. Likewise, a cleansing diet must be a part of this approach and this is written about in the section under that called acid vs alkaline diet.

Further to that, if this is an area you need to work on then you must know that detoxification is an important subject but one that has many myths and misconceptions, read more here


Juniperus communis (Juniper berry)

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Herbs for arthritis

There are many other herbs with traditions of use for arthritis but these particular four have been used extensively, often combined together, and have been seen to be of much benefit to a great many people.

Dandelion

Dandelion squeezes the hepatic (liver) sponge and rinses the renal (kidney) filter, more here.

Celery

Nothing can be better than Celery seed for flushing out acidic wastes from the joint, more here.

Devil's claw

This alarmingly named South African herb is a potent and proven arthritis remedy, more
here

Turmeric

Turmeric has an array of ingredients with well proven benefits for inflamed joints, more here


Curcuma longa (Turmeric root)

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Acid vs. Alkaline diet

Many old traditions of health and medicine have reached the same conclusion even though they have developed in completely different parts of the world, which is that for some people who suffer arthritis, an acidic diet makes things worse, an alkaline diet makes things better...

The body must eliminate acid metabolites and joint problems can be a classic outcome of a failure to do this. As discussed above, in the section on cleansing, the only way you may truly know if this is a core part of the problem is to follow a cleansing program for at least a month and see what happens, and a low acid, high alkaline diet is an essential part of that process.

One point that causes much confusion needs clarification in this area. Acidic foods are not those which taste acidic but rather are those which leave an acidic residue after digestion. A number of foods that taste acidic, such as citrus fruits and tomatoes, are in fact highly alkaline, for example, however they may taste, lemons are actually exceptionally alkalising!

This table shows food groups with their average levels of acidity, based on studies that have determined the potential renal acid level (PRAL) in well-designed experiments.

Food Group
PRAL
Fats & Oils
0
Fish    
7.9
Fruit & Fruit juices
-3.1
Grain Products
.. Bread
3.5
.. Flour
7.0
.. Noodles
6.7
Meat & meat products
9.5
Dairy products
.. Milk & non-cheese products
1.0
.. Low protein cheese (less than 15g per 100g)
8.0
.. High protein cheese (more than 15g per 100g)
23.6
Vegetables     
-2.8
Lentils/Peas
0.2
A negative value means the food is alkaline.

The most acidic food of all is Parmesan cheese, PRAL 34.2, and easily the most alkaline food is raisins, PRAL –21.0. As a side-note, a popular old remedy for arthritis was to soak some raisins in Gin overnight and then to eat the raisins in the morning!

Tea, coffee and wine are generally alkaline. Beer and soft drinks are acidic. Mineral water can be quite alkaline, up to PRAL –1.8. Bananas are very alkaline, PRAL –5.5, followed by apricots, PRAL –4.8. Spinach is extremely alkaline, PRAL –14.0. Processed meats are easily the most acidic of any form of meat or fish consumption. Egg yolks are very acidic, PRAL 23.4. Chocolate, peanuts and walnuts are mildly acidic and almonds and hazelnuts are alkaline.

This whole area can be summarised into one objective, which is simply to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables! For more detail on such a cleansing diet, read here.

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Check for food allergies

Still in relationship to food, but entirely different to excess acidity and the potential need for a cleansing diet, is the very real potential that undiagnosed food allergy or intolerance is driving an inflammatory process deep into the joints.

This is such an important area, and it affects so many people with arthritis that, at the very least, it must be considered as a possibility and so, in at least some cases, allergy or intolerance will need to be excluded.

In this case, it is going to require either some legitimate blood-testing, and/or a process whereby common high-allergy foods are completely eliminated for at least a week and then deliberately re-introduced to see how the body responds both with and without them.

Note that, for some individuals with arthritis, allergies to members of the nightshade family, i.e. tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, have been a major contributor to their joint inflammation and, as those individuals get better when they avoid those foods, it has somewhat entered popular awareness that these nightshade foods cause arthritis. This is not true, they certainly do not cause arthritis, unless of course you have a food intolerance to them...

Again, the only way to know may be to do some specialised blood testing or to completely remove them for at least a week and then deliberately re-introduce them to see what happens both with and without.

As with detoxification, the whole area of food allergy/intolerance is rife with misunderstandings. Certainly, if you have any childhood history of eczema or asthma or if you have developed migraines or hay fever in later life, or if you have a tendency to allergic 'shiners' (dark rings under the eyes) or cracks in the corners of your mouth then this may the area that you need to put at the top of your 'get better from arthritis' list. In any case, when you do need to explore this subject in more practical depth, read here.

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Check your oil and water

Many people who have arthritis are chronically dehydrated. Feeling how 'dry' you and your skin are can be a rough guide to this but you should be able to tell for yourself whether dehydration is an important part of your arthritis picture by whether your joints ache more or less according to certain changes in the weather or whether you feel better or worse with more or less fluids in your daily diet. To cure dehydration, you need both oil and water.

Oils

A deficiency of oils in the body will likely show up in a dry skin or scalp, or even just a lot of creaking and cracking in the joints on movement. The best way to get extra oils into the body is via the diet: especially with eggs, nuts, seeds, avocados, oily fish and olive oil.

If, for any reason, you can't eat these kinds of foods, or if you simply want to take some omega-3 supplements for the benefits that they are said to provide for conditions such as arthritis, be careful to getting and taking the 'good oil'

If purchasing a product, pierce one of the oil capsules with a needle to check for any rancidity. It should smell good enough to eat i.e. if you wouldn't eat it if it were a fish then don't swallow it as a pill!

Water

There are many connections between the health of the circulation and the health of the joints. This subject is discussed in more depth shortly however, the first thing to make sure of is that the blood itself is not too sticky from an insufficient daily water intake.

Many people can improve the quality of their blood by simply drinking more water. Many people require around 6-8 good-sized glasses of water but fall well short of this or only take their fluids in the form of tea or coffee, which do little to hydrate the body because they are both mildly diuretic.

A simple but honest way to know if you are drinking too little or too much is to keep a check on how often you are going to the toilet to pass urine. Less than once every two hours means that you are certainly dehydrated. More than once an hour means you are putting undue stress on your kidneys and should ease up on the fluids. Going every 1-2 hours is the sweet spot.

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Get the joint moving

Arthritis is an inflammation of the joint meaning, as the word inflammation suggests, that there is a flame within. Too much heat creates swelling, pain and damage and, by their nature, anti-inflammatory drugs are extremely ‘cooling’ and so take out the heat along with the pain, swelling etc. So, given this:

Why does arthritis feel worse in the cold?
Why do arthritic joints feel worse when they haven't been moved for a while?

Given the nature of inflammation, one would think that an arthritic joint would feel better in the cold and that it would be better off without heat creating movement.

This is one of the many paradoxes of medicine that makes you look deeper if you want to really understand what is going on. When a person’s circulation is poor they are much more prone to getting, what is known in the old traditions of medicine, as ‘stuck heat’. The joint may be too hot and  inflamed but the arthritis is worse in the cold or when the joint has been unmoving because at those times it is much harder for the blood to circulate around the joint, carrying away the chemistry of inflammation.

There are some specific and whole body strategies that improve circulation that are talked about next but for the fastest and more direct treatment possible you cannot go past your own or someone else’s hands.

The right cream or liniment to use are of much less importance than the simple, regular mobilising of the joint by getting hands on to it and moving everything around.

If you are able to get some regular hands-on help from someone who cares for you then you are a deeply fortunate person and must remember that the secret to great massage is feedback. The person who is receiving it must say 'harder, softer, faster, slower, a bit to the right, a bit deeper...and so forth until they get it and both you and they know they've got it. If you do this you will get great massage, it never fails.

However, if you are doing this treatment for yourself, and most people will need to be the one who does it at least some of the time if not all of the time, then remember it is the quality and not quantity that counts. A few minutes to mobilise, stretch and move the stuck joint can and will help.

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Get heat (fighting fire with fire)

Many people instinctively use heat to ease joint pain and around the world, throughout history, heating measures have been used to relieve pain in the joints.

Understanding why this works requires us to stop viewing symptoms of diseases as catastrophic events to be subdued at any cost and start seeing how many of these symptoms are showing how the deep self-regulating intelligence of the body is attempting to free itself from disease.

In the case of joint inflammations this means seeing the swelling, inflammation and subsequent pain as the body’s attempt to resolve an unhealthy state of affairs within the joint.

Heating treatments at first seem a weird thing to do when there is inflammation, theoretically it should make things worse rather than better. The proof, as always, is in the pudding.

The increased blood flow from massage, movement or heating herbs causes a therapeutic inflammation, achieving painlessly what the body has been struggling to create with pain, swelling and disability

There are instances when heating won’t help. Sometimes a body part is already at a maximum level of inflammation and any further ‘stoking up’ would be counterproductive. Nor would you typically reach for a heating treatment for joints affected by gout or rheumatoid arthritis in their acute stages.

However, most people with any kind of osteoarthritis that is of a chronic nature respond positively to heating measures, you can tell it is helping straight away because pain is lessened and mobility is increased.

Heating plus Cooling

In some cases, it will be best to use a combination of heating and then cooling strategies. This is where you follow up a hot wheat bag, or a hot compress, or simply bathing the body or an affected limb in hot water, with a cold ice-pack or a cold compress; made simply by placing a hand towel or other cloth into water from the fridge or to which ice-cubes have been added and then the wet fabric placed against the skin until the heat comes out of the body and the compress has warmed.

How you might know when to simply focus on heating therapy or when to also employ ice-packs etc. will be strongly influenced by whether a person is a hotter or cooler constitution. Hot constitutions will often be helped by some cooling therapy whereas cool constitutions are likely to only need and want the heating phase. The subject of 'constitutions' and how to work out which one you are is introduced at the end.

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External Heat

These are the most commonly used methods of getting external heat

  1. Wheat or rice bags
  2. Tiger Balm
  3. Liniments with menthol, eucalyptus or wintergreen
  4. Russian Ointment (with cayenne)
  5. Heat Lamps      
  6. Hot water bottles
  7. Saunas, spas, hot baths

Hot baths are not for everyone but if you know you are a 'bath person' then, if you can obtain some Epsom salts i.e. magnesium sulphate, and throw a handful of these into the bath as it is being run, you will get a deeper level of benefit into your blood and joints.

The gentle penetrating nature of a heated wheat bag is particularly suited to chronic arthritis and are one of the best ways to get heat from the outside in.

No one thing is right for everyone, but if you are wondering where to start in this area, then start with a wheat bag. You must heat it up immediately before use and for this you really need a microwave. Heat for several minutes, e.g. 2 or 3 depending on the strength of your machine and it will be ready to go. So long as you don't over-heat your wheat bag, you will smell cooking wheat if you do, then you will be able to use it for years.


a heated wheat-bag on an arthritic knee

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Internal Heat

The following are some effective ways to turn up the internal 'fire' and so help the body remedy the stuck heat in a joint or joints.

Ginger & Cinnamon

Ginger has a well-deserved reputation for helping with circulatory problems. It is a fascinating herb with a rich history and many therapeutic benefits - you can read a lot more about it here. Ginger was recently been picked up by the pharmaceutical industry as an arthritis treatment but we can harness the benefits of ginger with higher dosages and much lower costs by simply using the fresh root and making a tea. Cinnamon has unique warming properties of its own and is well known for its blood purifying properties and in fact I think it can be a very good arthritis herb in its own right - more about it here. The lemon and honey make the drink more palatable but also have their own 'alkalising' health benefits

Ginger & Cinnamon Decoction

 
    Chopped Fresh Ginger root
1 large dsp
    Small piece of Cinnamon stick
(approx ¼ or less)
    Squeezed fresh lemon
½
    Honey
1 tsp (or more to taste)
    Water
1 ½ cups

Instructions:

Add the chopped ginger with a slightly broken up piece of cinnamon stick to 1½ cups of water. Bring to the boil then gently simmer for about 5-10 minutes. Take off the heat, squeeze in ½ the lemon and then strain through a fine sieve into a cup. You should have reduced the water to less than a full cup. Add the honey and drink whilst it is still hot, you should notice a powerful feeling of warmth spreading through your body.

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Cayenne

Cayenne is the King of heating medicines. I use it a lot in my practice but, like everything, it is not for everyone. This is one of the few times I happily use herbs in a capsule form (generally they are more effective in liquid forms).  I often get people to start with taking 2 Cayenne capsules twice a day and then gradually build up to 4 or even 5 capsules two or even three times a day.  People will often reach their limit before they get to those levels, most commonly they say they just feel too hot in their stomachs, in any case the body reliably gives feedback in one way or another. I tell people that if by misfortune one of the capsules breaks and they get a throat or stomach burn to drink milk or yoghurt but above all to not panic. As painful and burning as it feels, it is not actually ever going to harm your tissues, this is why police can spray Cayenne pepper into people’s eyes with impunity!

The reason we go up to such high doses is to get the condition to shift. Once the core body temperature has come up and the circulation is moving better there is usually a significant improvement in the arthritic condition. At that time, I would suggest going down to a lower daily dose, such as 2 or 3 capsules a day, but watching for things getting worse again as a cue to pick the dose back up,
read more about Cayenne here.


Capsicum minimum (Cayenne)

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Summary and final thoughts

In fact, there are many other arthritis treatments in the world of natural medicine but what has been described above are the things that have been seen to help the most. In summary, they are:

~ make sure your mind is open to getting better or read widely to get there!
~ carefully consider whether drugs are helping in the long run
~ stop doing anything that might be making you worse
~ consider the need to cleanse your body to some degree
~ consider using some of the great herbal allies for arthritis
~ eat a more alkaline than acidic diet
~ keep up good levels of oil and water
~ keeping the bones warm and the joints moving
~ be prepared to add heat to the fire to help it to work itself out.

I can only imagine that this must all look rather daunting to anyone who is at all new to this kind of medicine. Couldn't this all be a lot easier? Well yes, but that doesn't mean you will get anywhere via trying to take a short cut. Even in the natural health world I have seen a great decline in the holistic approach in favour of simply giving people pills that are presumed to make it all go away without the person having to actually do any work!

I'm afraid that this is simple exploitation on the part of the companies that market a pill for every ill. I think you might temporarily alleviate, but you will never make a lasting difference to arthritis, without a comprehensive approach that includes diet, movement, warmth, addressing the worsening causes etc.

The medical line that arthritis can only be managed and never cured is because all they have to offer is pain-killers and surgery. The idea of helping the fire rather than putting it out is completely foreign to a Western doctor. Likewise there is simply no comprehension of the significance of diet, toxicity, nutrient deficiencies, food intolerances etc...

Obviously, this path is not for everyone, but if all of this makes simple, intuitive sense to you who are reading this, and you are ready to do whatever it takes to recover your health, then I wish you every strength and patience for the great journey of healing ahead, good luck!


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Constitutional Health Note

Finally, you might benefit from learning about your constitution to know what kind of foods, herbs, exercises etc. will work especially well for your health in general.

Constitutional health is an old and fascinating way of understanding our differences. There's a brief introduction here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here.

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd