When I turned 7, I thought it might be fun to take up ice hockey. In the cold Colorado mornings, getting up at 5 a.m. for a 5:30 practice wasn’t too tough (my dad might not agree), and I quickly learned the importance of perseverance and teamwork. Over the years, I’ve kept up with my hockey playing and have suffered with the typical bruises and sore muscles and joints. A few years ago, however, while playing in a playoff tournament, I skated towards the opponent’s net, as I typically would, but collided with a defenseman and tweaked my knee in a way I had never experienced. For months I suffered with daily aching and decreased range of motion and more importantly, had to stop playing hockey! Then I decided to try prolotherapy (more in a minute) as a natural solution to my knee pain and am quite pleased to say that not only am I back on skates, but I am absolutely pain free! In addition to prolotherapy, I have discovered a number of natural options to treating arthritis.
Hope for a Debilitating Condition
Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) put the number of Americans suffering with all types of arthritis at over 43 million. In general, there are many different types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus and ankylosing spondylitis, to name a few. The most common form is osteoarthritis that we associate with the aging process; rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune condition where the body mysteriously turns its own immune system against the joints. Both conditions can cause significant joint pain and in some cases, deformities to the joints as well.
Arthritis is simply the pain associated with any joint in the body, although the knee and lower back are the most common sites. These joints tend to take the brunt of abuse we put on our bodies as a result of poor posture and increased demand on these joints, which leads to inflammation. This is where standard therapy targets: the inflammatory process. Specific messengers within the body known as prostaglandins initiate the inflammatory process, while at the same time protecting stomach lining and regulating blood pressure.
With the advent of anti-inflammatory medications, millions of people have found relief from their joint pain. Unfortunately, more and more studies are suggesting that anti-inflammatory use comes with a price, particularly irritation to the gastrointestinal tract, kidney and liver disease, elevated blood pressure and prolonged bleeding after injury (easy bruising). If you use anti-inflammatory medications, be sure to use the smallest dose for the shortest amount of time possible. As an interesting side note, I have heard plenty of patients admit to using anti-inflammatory medicines (e.g., Advil, Motrin, etc.) before exercise to hopefully prevent joint and muscle pain. In theory this makes sense, however, research has shown that not only does this not prevent joint and muscle pain, but it can affect the kidneys such that electrolyte balance can become wildly disrupted and in some cases cause kidney failure. Yikes!
Three Natural Solutions for Arthritis
Addressing inflammation in the joints does not have to come with the many side effects seen with traditional approaches and the following strategies can be quite effective. First, aside from avoiding the obvious sources of trauma to joints that can cause inflammation, like playing hockey when you have knee pain, there can be other external factors that can lead to joint inflammation. At the top of the list lies the food that you put into your body. It appears that foods, which cause gastrointestinal inflammation like sugar, members of the nightshade family, trans fats, and to some degree red meat can worsen joint pain. In addition, the lack of good omega-3 fatty acids in the diet along with absent fruits and vegetables, particularly berries, green, orange and yellow veggies (not corn!) prevent your body from creating its own anti-inflammatory mechanisms. Another simple addition to your diet is fresh, clean drinking water. Arizonans are chronically dehydrated and you should try to aim for about half of your body weight in ounces for water intake each day.
As mentioned above, prolotherapy was highly effective in treating my knee pain and provides millions of Americans pain relief each year as well. Prolotherapy was formally introduced into the medical fray in the 1940s and its usage grows each year, with notable athletes like Tiger Woods and many members of the U.S. Olympic team employing the technique. A few well-designed studies have demonstrated improvement in the structures that support the joint following prolotherapy. So, how does it work? It is a type of injection medicine where regions of tendons or ligaments around joints are injected with a non-pharmacological natural solution (glucose, lidocaine, vitamin B12 and folic acid) to stimulate the body to strengthen weakened connective tissue and therefore reduce or eliminate pain. Unlike steroid injections (“cortisone”), which only provide temporary relief and carry numerous side effects, prolotherapy is designed to stimulate tissue growth and promote true healing that ultimately alleviates pain without any side effects.
Nature has also provided us with a number of botanical herbs that for centuries have been highly effective in treating arthritis. These botanicals include quercetin, boswelia, curcumin, nettles and cramp bark to name a few. More recently, studies have demonstrated that botanicals target a number of inflammatory signaling molecules and shut down the inflammatory process. One well-designed study in 2009 showed that curcumin and resveratrol were superior to traditional non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines in reducing inflammatory markers, but more importantly reducing pain felt by test subjects.
When you start to feel the aches and pains that typically settle in your joints, you might consider examining your foods and discussing prolotherapy or botanical interventions with your doctor to help you feel better. But if you’re ever out on the hockey rink, you might want to watch out for me!