Inflammation, Arthritis, and Relief of Joint Pain

By Camilla Parr, MD.

Alternative medicine is leading the way in deepening our understanding of the importance of inflammation in the prevention, early detection and recovery of many chronic diseases.

A conventionally trained doctor will learn that the process we call inflammation is the body's immune system response to an injury or assault. We learn that our body has a complicated cascading series of biochemical and cellular reactions that are triggered when we burn a finger, sprain an ankle, or encounter the bacteria that can cause a streptococcal infection. What we didn't learn-which complementary and alternative healers have known for years - is that this process we conventional doctors call inflammation represents a process with much broader implications to our health and wellness.

Inflammation can also occur in the apparent absence of an assault or trauma. Rheumatoid arthritis is an example. A chronic disease experienced primarily by women, the body literally turns against itself. With Rheumatoid arthritis, the body generates the same response we see with trauma to a joint (mobilizing the immune system inflammatory response with resulting swelling, redness, and pain) in the absence of any trauma. Over time, this repeated inflammatory response damages the joints, producing deformity and chronic impaired mobility.

Modern science is also beginning to document the vital importance of inflammation in the development of heart disease. We create tiny insults to our blood vessels over and over, as we traumatize our bodies with poor dietary habits, don't metabolize (create usable energy for our bodies) well, build up toxins, and burn delicate tissues with over-oxidation. Our bodies attempt to correct these insults by sending in the inflammation troops to protect the injured cell walls. Over time, we develop arteriosclerosis and arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), followed by heart attacks or strokes. A simple test for inflammation, C-reactive protein is extremely useful in evaluating who is at risk for coronary artery disease. This test is only just now coming into routine use by conventional doctors as a screening tool. Where you, reader, will most likely personally experience easily recognizable consequences of an overactive inflammatory response is arthritis. Not the dramatic Rheumatoid arthritis mentioned earlier, but the more common wear and tear arthritis we call degenerative arthritis. We have been taught that this is a process that occurs as we age. We are taught that once we have an arthritic joint we are best helped with anti-inflammatory medications (over the counter Advil, aspirin, or Aleve; prescription Vioxx or Celebrex). Once those medications fail, we move on to joint replacements (if the joints can be replaced), to surgical fusion to decrease pain at the lower back (where joints can't be replaced), and are left by conventional medicine to suffer if the diseased joint doesn't fall into either fore mentioned category (for example chronic arthritis of the neck).

Glycosamine and kinder, gentler interventions?

Glycosamine is a natural dietary supplement, available without a prescription, with a good track record for pain relief of arthritis, and actual reduction of joint damage. A randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study (this is the kind of study that conventional doctors respect as valid) was done, looking at 212 patients with arthritis of the knee. Use of 1,500 mg of glycosamine daily, over a three year period provided not only pain relief, but no increased loss of cartilage was found. The placebo group showed progression of the narrowing in the knee joint, due to ongoing loss of cartilage, over the same three year time period (1). In theory, glycosamine supplements the body's own supply of building block material for maintaining the flexibility and integrity of the cartilage that cushions the joints, allowing the body to replenish that cartilage, even as the inflammatory response damages it.

Glycosamine 500 mg three times a day appears to produce the best results. This supplement does not necessarily produce quick fix results; a three month trial is recommended, before giving up and deciding that nothing is happening. It is an inability to commit to actually taking the supplement three times a day that seems to account for most treatment failures. Rarely, people cannot tolerate this supplement (diarrhea being the most common side effect).

Better yet would be prevention. We get degenerative arthritis in our weight bearing joints, first. If we are overweight, that is going to stress our knees, hips, and lower backs even more. Therefore, weight loss (if we are overweight), and maintaining a normal weight (if we are not overweight) is a primary (before we ever get arthritis) and a secondary (will still relieve pain once we have developed the arthritis) prevention tool.

Exercise keeps our joints moving, which can be very good for primary prevention of arthritis, but can aggravate existing arthritis. Use of over the counter or prescription anti-inflammatory drugs can make us feel less pain if we take them before going jogging. But, if the pain in our knees is masked by the drug, we might jog longer, adding to the wear and tear damage that is happening in our knees, back or hips, triggering more of an inflammatory response.

So what will you choose, an easy fix, or a healthier life?Nsaid was an easy fix. It definitely worked to decrease arthritis pain, rightfully making it the best seller it was. What it also did was block one cascade path in the inflammatory response, pushing another path into high gear. That other path happens to be the one that contributes to arteriosclerosis. With our better understanding of the complex role of inflammation in the body, we can see the connection of Vioxx to increased heart attacks. Unfortunately, most conventional doctors did not. And the pharmaceutical company that made Vioxx had lots to gain by keeping us all in the dark.

A cautionary tale for all; conventional medicine is not always right, scientifically valid, or honest, despite the number of journal references sited.

And alternative therapies may correct problems in ways that conventional doctors can never explain with our valid scientific studies. For centuries, Traditional Chinese Medicine has referred to too much heat in the body, as will Ayurvedic medicine, and many folk medical practices? All of these phrases reflect a particular understanding but not from the scientific way of knowing-of the inflammation process. These traditions also recognize energetic and emotional traumas in the body as having an effect on heat/ inflammatory response. In the world of alternative medicine, rheumatoid arthritis would not be perceived as inflammation in the absence of trauma at all. Trauma is there; the conventional doctor wouldn't think to address blocked chi at the liver meridian, chronic emotional stress, or a broken heart, stuck in anger. An acupuncturist or cuarandera might obtain a remission that is in the world of magic and miracle to conventional medicine. As East meets West, and old practices inform newer knowledge, understanding our bodies and how they work is our best tool for empowered approach to selecting modes that work best for us-as complex individuals in an increasingly complex world of medicine, magic, and miracles.




Author Camilla Parr is a board certified medical doctor.




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