Herbs for Health: Remedies for Arthritis

A supplement to The Herb Companion from the American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation.

| February/March 1997

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Herbal Relief for Arthritis

Arthritis has plagued the human race since the beginning of history. Fourteen of the eighty-six Byzantine emperors (a.d. 324–1453) are known to have suffered from this joint disorder. Historians analyzing medical and government records of the empire concluded that heredity was a major factor in the disease but that overconsumption of alcohol and fatty foods also played a role. Whatever the cause, the disease was so prevalent in the Byzantine population that it contributed to political and military difficulties.

Today, arthritis, in its various forms, is America’s number one cause of disability. It may limit its victims’ ability to walk, dress, climb stairs, or even get out of bed in the morning. The economic impact on the American economy, including medical care and lost wages, exceeds $50 billion a year. More than forty million Americans, roughly one in seven, suffer from one form of arthritis or another.

Symptoms and causes

Arthritis is not one condition, but a group of more than 100 ailments causing inflammation and tissue damage in the joints. The most common form, especially among older people, is osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease. One-half of all cases of arthritis are this form. Associated with aging and wear and tear on joints, it is characterized by pain and inflammation stemming from cartilage breakdown.

One of the most destructive forms is rheumatoid arthritis, which affects about 1 percent of Americans. It may occur at any age but typically affects people between the ages of twenty and fifty, women three times as frequently as men. It attacks a joint’s synovial lining, a membrane that secretes an egg-whitelike fluid that lubricates the joint. Inflammation of the membrane produces an overabundance of fluid, causing swelling, pain, and restriction of joint movement. Severe cases may result in permanent deformity.

The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known. Heredity may play a role, as well as the body’s own immune system. Infections have also been known to bring on its symptoms. A growing body of evidence suggests that food allergens entering the bloodstream can cause an inflammatory response in the joints. A diet high in saturated fats may also be a contributing factor.

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