It hurts. It hurts when I get out of bed. It hurts when I bend down to pick up the laundry basket. Ooh, my knees! Yow, my shoulder! What’s goin’ on?
Could it be arthritis, the affliction of the musculoskeletal system that attacks the joints and is the main cause of disability among people over fifty-five years of age? Maybe so. The word comes from the Greek arthron, meaning “joint,” and the Latin itis, meaning “inflammation.” Aha! Inflammation. Drat! Where did that come from?
Arthritis is not a single disease, but one that covers almost a hundred conditions, the most common being osteoarthritis, which generally affects older folks. Some forms, though, can strike at any age—even very young.
Of course, you know what a joint is. It’s held together by ligaments, the elastic bands that keep bones in place when you move. The surface of each bone is covered with cartilage to keep the bones from rubbing directly against each other, allowing smooth, painless movement. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. The joint is surrounded by a kind of capsule that contains synovial fluid, which is secreted by membranes inside joint cavities, tendon sheaths and bursae (always found at friction points) to provide lubrication. If you have arthritis something goes wrong with the machinery, and what goes wrong depends on the kind of arthritis you have. It could be that the cartilage is wearing thin, or that fluid is in short supply, or that there is an infection, or that the body is attacking itself in an autoimmune response. It might even be a combination of these factors.
Of the many types of arthritis, osteo- is probably the best known and most often treated. This is where we will focus—after a brief rundown of the other types. (Otherwise, this would take lots of room. Look for separate mention in future musings.) Osteoarthritis is characterized by cartilage that loses elasticity and shock absorption. As cartilage wears down, tendons and ligaments stretch, causing discomfort. Eventually, bone rubs against bone, causing considerable pain. Symptoms start slowly and develop over time, getting worse. Stiffness, especially in the A.M., might go away with use of the joint. Sometimes spurs appear around the joint; sometimes swelling, too. Hands, knees, hips and the spine are worst hit.
Rheumatoid arthritis is downright inflammatory. Here, the synovial membrane is attacked, resulting in swelling and agony. Untreated, it can cause deformity. More common in women than men, RA usually strikes between ages 40 and 60, but young children may also be afflicted. Here, the same joints in each side of the body are painfully swollen, inflamed and stiff. Fingers, arms, legs and wrists are the most common targets. Hands may be red and puffy, and tender when touched. The smaller joints are noticeably affected first.
The signs of infectious arthritis, another type, include fever, joint swelling and of course, inflammation. Tenderness or sharp pain is common. Often these symptoms are linked to an injury or another illness. Most often, only a single joint is affected. Bacterial or viral invasion of the synovial tissue might be at the root.
Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) attacks children under sixteen and presents as one of three types: pauciarticular, which is mildest; polyarticular, which is more severe; and systemic, which is the least common, but the worst because it can affect organs. With this form, there will be intermittent fevers that spike at night and suddenly disappear. Appetite and weight will fall. Blotchy rashes may appear on the extremities, and joints will swell and remain larger than normal.
The medications used to treat arthritis vary according to the type of arthritis. Analgesics help to fight pain, but do not necessarily address inflammation. Tylenol is one, but prescription narcotics may be recommended in some cases. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) reduce both pain and inflammation. Ibuprofen and naproxen are available over the counter, and some require a prescription. These can cause stomach upset. Rub-on creams and ointments containing capsaicin, the component that makes hot peppers hot, are called counterirritants. Sometimes they work; sometimes not. Biological medicines are genetically engineered to target specific proteins involved in an immune response. You see ads for these on TV. Each of these different kinds of medications can have unpleasant side effects, ranging from simple gastric distress to susceptibility to serious infections to cardiac involvement. To add insult to injury, you have to stay out of the sun. So much for trips to the beach. We can’t forget steroids, such as cortisone. They can reduce pain, but they also reduce vitamin and mineral levels in the body, especially calcium.
Are there alternatives to drugs? Yes. The one most often used is glucosamine, often accompanied by chondroitin. Glucosamine works by stimulating the metabolism of chondrocytes—the cartilage cells—and the cells that make synovial fluid. Chondroitin is found in cartilage tissue, where it serves as the substrate for the joint matrix and works to pull water into the joint. When money is available for research, integrative therapies may be tested against allopathic treatments and placebos. Some results are real eye-openers, while others are ho-hum. Not only is glucosamine alone, as well as combined with chondroitin, well-tolerated, but also as effective as commonly used pharmaceutical interventions, and faster acting than any placebo (Lopes, 1982). A characteristic of natural treatments for an ailment is that, since they come from plants or animals as opposed to chemicals, they take longer to evoke a positive response. In a head-to-head comparison with ibuprofen, glucosamine did a better job of ameliorating pain after eight weeks of treatment than did the drug (Lopes, 1982), and did so for a larger group of people (Pujalte, 1980). As the quality of most merchandise varies from maker to maker along the continuum, so does the quality of supplements, realizing that cost is not the best indicator of grade (McAlindon, 2000). But, in the long run, glucosamine seems to be an ally in modifying the course of osteoarthritis (Reginster, 2001) and in maintaining (and even improving) structural integrity of knee joints (Bruyere, 2004). Drugs come with caveats, but so, too, do alternatives. It is not a good idea to take a supplement without at least a little guidance from someone who knows the territory, such as an integrative dietitian, a holistic-oriented physician, or some other credentialed practitioner. People don’t generally know that glucosamine could increase eye pressure in those with glaucoma. That’s the last thing they need (Murphy, 2013). And if you take a blood thinner or an aspirin a day, be careful about taking chondroitin because its chemistry is close to that of heparin and that could increase bleeding risk (Rozenfeld, 2004).
SAM-e, S-Adenosyl Methionine, is a naturally-occurring molecule distributed throughout the body that diminishes as we get older. It plays a role in more than a hundred biochemical reactions involving methylation, where it contributes to hormones, neurotransmitters, nucleic acids, proteins and phospholipids. In an early study of SAM-e effectiveness in treating osteoarthritis of the knee, hip and spine, patients found relief from morning stiffness, pain at rest and pain at movement in the first few weeks of the trial, which lasted for twenty-four months. No adverse effects were reported and none of the subjects dropped out (Konig, 1987). Mild nausea may occur with SAM-e, but that inconvenience is more bearable than the effects of drugs like Indomethacin (Vetter, 1987). What’s more, SAM-e has virtues beyond arthritis treatment. Remember that we mentioned the slowness of natural substance results. In a test at the University of California, it was learned that SAM-e is equal to celecoxib (Celebrex®) in the management of knee osteoarthritis, but slower in onset of action (Najm, 2004). If there is a problem with SAM-e, it’s the cost. However, the result is worth the outlay.
Prostaglandins are chemicals in the body that regulate several functions, including inflammation and vascular permeability. Some can start the inflammation ball rolling, while others can interrupt it. The activity of these proteins can be modulated by essential fatty acids in the omega-3 family, notably EPA, a component of fish oil and the downstream product of the alpha linolenic acid common to flaxseed oil. We know that essential fatty acids are just that—essential, meaning they must come from food or supplements because the body cannot make them. Decades-long studies have pronounced the efficacy of omega-3 fats in the management of arthritis—and other inflammatory conditions—by virtue of their capacity to tone down the pro-inflammatory and to lift up the anti-inflammatory substances that alleviate pain (Hurst, 2010) (Zainal, 2009). A Welsh study performed at the beginning of the century noticed that n-3 fats, in a dose-dependent manner, were able to abolish the expression of pro-inflammatory mediators via a mechanism different from that of other polyunsaturated fatty acids (Curtis, 2002). Later study, also in the British Isles, found that n-3 fats reduced arthritic disease in laboratory animals inclined to suffer it (Knott, 2011). When glucosamine and n-3 fats were combined, the positive results were declared superior (Gruenwald, 2009).
Avoiding sugary foods and refined grains, and limiting red meats can do much to ease arthritic discomfort. Losing weight also helps by reducing stress on knees and hips, where the extra pounds squeeze cartilage into oblivion. Although moderate alcohol consumption is associated with decreased risk of arthritis, especially rheumatoid, it’s not recommended as a treatment. Nor is it a reason to start drinking (DiGiuseppe, 2012).
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