Holistic practitioners view the development of arthritis as a degenerative process which is the end result of longstanding chronic stress to the body. This stress could be physical, mental or toxin induced, or a combination. Joints seem to work at the limits of their capacity, both mechanically and in terms of their available blood supply, and therefore they tend to be the first system to complain when things are not right. The underlying disease process is different in each case. If it is possible to address this underlying cause then there is a good prognosis for gradual improvement, or at least avoiding a worsening of symptoms.
There are many herbs which can be used to help alleviate the painful symptoms of arthritis. The plant kingdom is abundant in species that act as anti-inflammatories. Steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs were originally developed from plant material and are still largely synthesized from saponins such as diosgenin from the Mexican Yam (Dioscorea floribunda). Of course once you extract particular compounds from a plant you are losing the potentially balancing effect of the whole plant extract, one of the reasons why artificial drugs are faster acting but also carry a much higher risk of side effects.
Nettle (Urtica dioica) is excellent for soothing the inflammation of arthritis. In former times people used to thrash affected joints with nettles, but you may find it more pleasant to have a cup of nettle tea. The Romans used an ointment made of olive oil infused with nettle seed and rosemary in order to act as an anti-inflammatory and to stimulate the blood circulation to the affected part. Here at the clinic I have recreated this Roman recipe and it is very popular, particularly amongst those suffering from arthritic hands and fingers.
Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is a herb which grows in the Kalahari Desert and is gaining popularity as a herb to ease the inflammation associated with arthritis. Although controlled studies are limited in the literature there is some supporting evidence – for example Belaiche p. Phytotherapy 1982 1:22-28.
Nearer to home Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) is a good anti-inflammatory herb which works well to reduce the overall acidity in the body. Meadowsweet contains salicylates so although excellent as an anti-inflammatory it should be avoided if you are on anti-coagulant therapy.
Bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) is almost considered a specific for arthritis, as well as rheumatism and rheumatoid arthritis. It stimulates the walls of the colon, allowing better elimination and release of any longstanding mucus. It is however best avoided if there is any tendency to colitis or diarrhoea. It also stimulates the digestion since it's a bitter, and this helps to support the liver and gall bladder. You may think that this has little to do with joint inflammation, but a sluggish digestive system and a congested bowel are often the underlying culprits for this disease process. Bogbean combines well with celery seed (Apium graveolens).
There are a lot of strong opinions on which foods exacerbate arthritis. In general it is a good idea to cut down on coffee and red meat, and avoid foods with high levels of oxalic acid such as rhubarb. Citrus fruits are usually OK, because although they're acid, they have an alkaline effect on our bodies. Some people swear by removing the ‘Nightshade family’ from the diet. This means paprika, potatoes, tomatoes, aubergine and peppers.
The application of hot and cold packs can be very effective at reducing pain and inflammation in arthritis. By alternating between hot and cold the blood supply to the area is opened up and inflammatory compounds are carried away from the affected area. Hold a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel against the joint until it feels really hot, then swap it for a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel until it feels really cold – up to 15 minutes. Repeat three times with each if you can. It may be something that you can do while you are watching television in the evening. In situations with acutely painful inflamed joints favour the cold application with only very short bursts of hot in between.
Exercise is important to keep joints flexible and improve circulation; it helps to control weight too. Being overweight is a key factor in exacerbating arthritis. Remember joints which have to cope with extra weight are much more likely to complain.
The chronic pain of arthritis can affect all aspects of life and if there is a possibility of reducing the amount of painkillers which you are taking, and generally becoming more mobile then I think that it is worth exploring it. I can’t promise to have you dancing on the table but I will do my best!