What Is Arthritis?
Arthritis is the inflammation of one or more joints, and is accompanied by pain, swelling and changes in structure. The distance between bones within joints becomes narrower and the special cartilage that forms a smooth lining at the ends of the bones becomes thinner and irregular. There is a restriction in the range of movement together with the characteristic cracking and creaking noises that are caused by the rubbing together of the two irregular surfaces. The affected joints usually feel stiff after a period of immobility (e.g. in the morning after sleep) and are more mobile after some activities.
There are two major types of arthritis: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid is more severe with the development of marked deformity and loss of function. Osteoarthritis is more common and results from normal wear and tear, which tends to affect joints that have been subjected to overuse, trauma or excessive weight bearing.
Perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) arthritis is classified as “Bi Zheng”, which means “painful” obstruction. Arthritis is due to a blockage in the normal free flow of blood and Qi (energy) in the body. The ancient Chinese were aware of the circulation of both blood and energy throughout the body via a complex network of vessels and channels (meridians). Normally for a healthy person there is a free flow and normal distribution of these substances to all parts of the body Diseases are a disruption to this flow. For arthritis, the Qi and blood are obstructed by the invasion of climactic influence from the environment such as wind, cold, heat and dampness. These factors usually gain access to the body because of a pre-existing weakness or imbalance. In this way the environmental influences become lodged in various places in the body. The combination of factors from the outside with imbalances within the body causes the Qi and blood flow to become blocked in some of the joints. Each person's particular symptoms give an indication of the type of pathogens that are present. Pain that moves from one location to another is due to wind; fixed pain which feels numb and heavy is due to dampness; inflammation with red and hot joints is due to heat; severe pain without redness or heat is due to cold.
In practice, arthritis is mainly due to wind and dampness. In many cases cold or heat are also involved. The individual's overall state of health plays an important part, and if the blood, the Qi, the liver or the kidneys are in a weakened condition, this will predispose an individual towards the invasion of the external pathogens and allow them to take hold.
Treatment is usually a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. The main mechanism is to restore the normal flow of Qi and blood and to strengthen any underlying weaknesses. This provides the quickest and most complete approach to the relief of pain and the healing of damaged tissues.
Chinese herbal medicine includes dry herbs and herbal tablets which are prescribed after a consultation and vary according to the patient’s needs.
Massage oil and Chinese herbal plasters are also available and can be used in conjunction with the herbal medicines.
There are several things that you can do to assist the treatment and help reduce deterioration. These include dietary and life-style changes:
- Avoid or reduce any activities that put too much stress on particular joints. You will usually notice that certain movements or postures will worsen your condition and therefore these should be avoided. This may involve a change of occupation or hobby and correction of posture;
- Take gentle daily exercise for the whole body, including gentle stretching. The joints should be taken through their whole range of movement and stretched as for as possible within your tolerance of pain;
- Certain foods may aggravate arthritis, the common ones being tomatoes, aubergine, capsicum, spinach, rhubarb, gooseberries, black and red currants. These should be avoided for several months and then reintroduced gradually. If you notice a worsening of the condition, then the offending food should be omitted entirely. Strongly acidic foods should be minimised or avoided, these include red meat, eggs, most cheeses, vinegar, pickles, white flout white sugar, coffee, tea and alcoholic beverages. Any foods that cause digestive problems such as heartburn, wind, diarrhoea or constipation should also be avoided. Inorganic minerals such as salt and some spring waters (with a high mineral content) should be minimised or avoided;
- It is important to maintain your correct body weight and reduce it if necessary as this will help relieve the stress on the bearing joints.