By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness
A few weeks ago, while my parents were in town for a visit, I noticed how much my mother’s gait had slowed. Like 33 million other Americans, my mother suffers from osteoarthritis (OA). It can be a limiting, even debilitating disease.
Sometimes we can catch a glimpse of our own future by looking at our parents. I’ve already noticed a little stiffness when I get out of bed in the morning and, like many of my fellow baby-boomers, I’m looking for ways to either prevent the onset of OA or minimize its impact on my life.
Osteoarthritis is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and is characterized by chronic stiffness and pain in the joints, particularly the hands, hips, knees and back. Joints are the places where bones come together to allow coordinated movement. They may sound simple, but they aren’t. There are 206 bones in the human skeleton and the vast majority of them come together in joints, where a cavity filled with fluid separates the bones from each other. Cartilage, spongy tissue on the end of each bone, cushions the connection and help keeps everything moving smoothly. In OA, however, cartilage begins to break down, causing bone to rub against bone. The result is inflammation, pain and stiffness.
There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that oxidative
stress exacerbates inflammation and worsens joint health. So I checked in with Joseph Pizzorno, N.D, the author of the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, to find out how we can reduce oxidative stress and improve our joint profile. He said that foods high in antioxidant vitamins – A, C and E – can help protect cartilage. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are also critical in regulating oxidative stress and joint inflammation. The kinds of fat we eat, in particular the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, can dramatically affect inflammation. Unfortunately, most of us get far too much of the omega-6 fatty acids found in vegetable oils, and too little of the omega-3’s found in cold water fish, flaxseed and pumpkin seeds. Conversely, reducing foods that trigger inflammation – processed foods, sugar and the saturated fats found in meat and dairy products – not only helps to protect joints, it can ease arthritis pain.
Beat Pain Naturally
What if you already suffer from arthritis pain? Your doctor may recommend that you take an over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen. Unfortunately, these drugs are exceptionally hard on the gastrointestinal system and long-term use can result in stomach upset, peptic ulcers and intestinal bleeding. Since this is such a common problem, a growing number of doctors are prescribing a new generation of NSAIDs that include Celebrex and Vioxx. Designed to eliminate gastrointestinal problems, these new drugs are being hailed as the new “safe” aspirin. Once again, the drug companies may have spoken too soon. Disturbing news is beginning to surface as users report a number of side effects, including diarrhea, headaches, respiratory infections, dizziness and skin rashes. And researchers from the University of California-Irvine found that these new pain relievers could worsen colitis and interfere with the healing of gastric ulcers. Of more concern, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration received reports of 10 deaths within months of the release of Celebrex and both drugs were found to increase the risk of heart attack. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 23,407 patients found that these new drugs significantly increase the risk of myocardial infarction.
That’s the bad news. The good news – and its news you’ve probably already heard – is that arthritis sufferers are finding relief from glucosamine. One of the natural components of cartilage, glucosamine has been examined in numerous studies of osteoarthritis with repeatedly impressive results. In a large multicenter trial involving 252 physicians and 1,208 arthritic subjects, researchers found that glucosamine was more effective in reducing pain from exertion and decreasing limitations on active and passive movement than all other treatments. Other studies have repeatedly found that glucosamine reduces inflammation and joint space narrowing without any adverse side effects. Glucosamine is often combined with chondroitin in supplements. Chondroitin works by attracting fluid into the web-like cartilage that covers the bones of the joint. The fluid attracted into the cartilage provides shock absorption for surrounding bones and supplies nutrients to the cartilage, thus supporting its regeneration and growth.
Here’s something you may not have heard. I recently came across a study review comparing S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) with NSAIDs for relieving the pain of OA. After reviewing 11 studies, with a total of 1,400 patients, researchers found that SAMe offered the same pain relief as NSAIDs without any of the side effects. Better yet, SAMe improves functional limitations by actually enhancing the body’s production of cartilage.
Although millions of arthritis suffers rely on topical capsaicin creams to decrease pain and stiffness, adding boswellia to this herbal treatment can make a world of difference in treating arthritis pain and inflammation. Unlike capsaicin, which interferes with the body’s perception of pain, boswellia inhibits the synthesis of leukotrienes, the agents responsible for inflammation. Boswellia is an Ayurvedic herb that has been used in India for centuries to treat inflammatory diseases. Not only has boswellia withstood the test of time, there is strong scientific evidence supporting its use. In a double-blind placebo-controlled study conducted earlier this year, 30 patients were given either boswellia or a placebo for eight weeks. By the end of the study, those taking the herb not only reported a reduction in pain and inflammation, they also experienced an increase in flexibility and walking distance.
One Last Thing . . .
Speaking of pain, if you’re one of the 31 million Americans that suffer from chronic low back pain, try acupuncture. According to a recent study, acupuncture relieves chronic low back pain more effectively than conventional orthopedic treatments. In the study, all of the 174 participants received conventional treatment. They were also randomly assigned to either acupuncture or conventional therapy alone. At the end of the four-week trial, only 43 percent of those receiving conventional therapy had their pain cut in half, while 65 percent of the acupuncture group experienced relief. Three months after the end of the trial, those using conventional therapy went from a 50 percent reduction in pain to just 14 percent. But in the acupuncture group the number actually rose to 77 percent!
Curtis CL, et al. “Pathologic indicators of degradation and inflammation in human osteoarthritic cartilage are abrogated by exposure to n-2 fatty acids.” Arthritis and Rheumatism. 2002; 46:1544-1553.
Kimmatkar N, et al. “Efficacy and tolerability of Boswellia serrata extract in treatment of osteoarthritis of knee – a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial.” Phytomedicine. 2003; 10:3-7.
Soeken KL, et al. “Safety and efficacy of S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) for osteoarthritis.” Journal of Family Practice. 2002; 51:425-430