Did you know that arthritis is believed to be the oldest discovered ailment? Scientists have found this disease in the joints of some dinosaurs and even mummies!
It’s no wonder that the Arthritis Foundation estimates that some 59 million Americans will have arthritis by the year 2020. That’s nearly 20 percent of the population!
As a term, arthritis means “joint inflammation.” While there are many forms of arthritis, the most common are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Osteoarthritis, the most common form, is a degenerative condition that is caused when the joint cartilage begins to break down, either from prolonged wear-and-tear, traumatic injury or infection, thus leading to a bony enlargement.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease of the autoimmune system that causes inflammation of the synovial membrane (joint lining) and destruction and deformity of bone, cartilage, ligament and muscle tissue.
Regardless of type, common arthritic symptoms include pain in the joints, redness and swelling of the joints and loss of joint function. The pain of osteoarthritis gradually worsens with use over the course of the day, whereas the pain of rheumatoid arthritis tends to be worse on waking and improves as the day progresses.
Ancient Approach to Ancient Disease
Mainstream medicine has no cure for arthritis. In fact, physicians have no real way of knowing if someone is getting arthritis until its symptoms begin. At that point, doctors advise rest, exercise and a two-pronged drug therapy approach.
Given that arthritis is the oldest disease known to man, it only makes sense that the Chinese have been diagnosing and treating it for thousands of years. Yet doctors of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) do not look at it as a disease. Rather, they see it as an “obstruction pattern” which can be differentiated, depending on signs and symptoms. Once the obstruction pattern is identified the pattern of imbalance can be corrected.
According to the theories of TCM, one can contract an obstruction pattern when wind, cold, dampness and/or heat enter the body and lodge in the meridian channels and network vessels. These are the energy channels of acupuncture and spaces between joints, muscles and organs. This leads to impairment of blood and body fluids which then causes such signs and symptoms as achy pain, impaired joint movement, numbness, tingling and/or heaviness of the limbs.
There are two main obstruction patterns in TCM. They are Wind-Cold-Damp and Wind-Damp-Heat. Identifying which pattern you have gives you clues to its treatment. Let’s take a look at the patterns now.
The Wind-Cold-Damp pattern is caused by wind, cold and/or dampness invading the body when immunity is low. Think of when you have been tired and worn out and suddenly caught a cold or started experiencing back pain or headaches. This is the same thing. Your immune system is low and is therefore unable to “defend” against the cold and dampness, which then congregate around the joints, thereby restricting movement and causing pain.
Wind-Cold-Damp obstruction pattern is further differentiated as Moving Obstruction, Painful Obstruction and Fixed Obstruction.
Moving (Wind) Obstruction finds the pain in the joints tends to move or wander from location—like the movement of wind. Symptoms include impaired movement of the joints that changes location and an aversion to wind. It may be accompanied by fever and chills, a tongue with yellow fur-like build-up and a rapid pulse.
Painful (Cold) Obstruction finds severe pain in one location. Symptoms include impaired movement of specific joints, pain that is worse when exposed to cold and is alleviated when exposed to warmth, thin, white fur-like build-up on the tongue and a pulse that is generally considered tight and wiry.
Fixed (Damp) Obstruction finds the pain to be fixed or in its location. Symptoms include numbness and swelling of the skin and heaviness of the limbs with worsening conditions in weather that is cool, cold or damp. The tongue will have a coating that is greasy and the pulse will be moderate.
The Wind-Damp-Heat pattern is caused when wind, dampness and/or heat lodges in the body. This can easily happen when immunity is low during the long hot/humid/damp summer days.
Symptoms include hot skin, swelling and red color of painful areas that increases with contact. Since it is a heat condition, there is often dehydration causing dry mouth, dark concentrated urine, constipation, a tongue with greasy, yellow fur-like build-up and a rapid pulse.
How to Prevent and Alleviate Arthritis
Since TCM differentiates between the syndromes of obstruction, it does not treat each pattern of arthritis in the same way. Various acupuncture points would be needled and herbal medicines would be used to do any number of the following: eliminate wind and/or dampness, dissipate cold, warm the channels, free the network vessels, resolve heat toxin and stop pain.
If you live in an area where there are acupuncturists or Chinese herbalists, I recommend consulting them for treatment. Additionally, there are five simple things that you can do yourself to help prevent or alleviate the symptoms of arthritis:
- Be mindful of wear-and-tear on the joints through repetitive stresses or strained activities, such as running, lifting, machine work, dancing, martial arts, etc. Try to take a break or change position (or activity) often to decrease chances of breakdown. Be sure to warm up the muscles and joints properly before engaging in such activities.
- Inactivity can also lead to joint problems, since lack of exercise or movement in general can weaken the joint-supporting musculature and decrease mobility. A joint, like a muscle, that is not used enough will atrophy, becoming weak, stiff, dysfunctional and prone to injury. So get up and move around, clean the house or exercise as often as possible. Movement is the key here.
- Studies have shown that obese individuals are at risk for developing arthritis because of the constant load placed on the joints, especially the knees and hips. Changing your diet and exercise habits will help prevent this from happening!
- If you have Wind-Cold-Damp obstruction pattern “arthritis,” you can wear gloves and dress warmly in winter, avoid cold beverages, eat warm food and beverages and use heat as therapy on painful days.
- If you have Wind-Damp-Heat obstruction pattern “arthritis,” you can refrain from too many spicy foods and diuretic beverages such as coffee, tea, alcohol and those high in sugar. On painful days you can use ice as therapy.
In another article I will share with you the results of a study on arthritis and a certain drink. Until then, if you are suffering, please see which of the above “obstruction patterns” you most closely fall into and then incorporate the above-mentioned tips as appropriate.
Yours in self-directed wellness,
—Dr. Mark Wiley