Pain-Free Joints, Naturally

Beat arthritis symptoms with herbs and supplements.

| July/August 2001

  • The seeds of the borage flower (Borago officinalis) contain essential fatty acids that suppress inflammation, making them a useful treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.
    Steven Foster

Ten studies have found varying degrees of success in using devil’s claw to reduce pain and improve mobility in osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lower-back pain. 

Until two years ago, herbalist Margaret Osgood was climbing mountains—pretty impressive at seventy-six years old. Then a fall down a flight of stairs at work changed everything for Osgood. She dislocated both hips, her pelvis, and one shoulder. Though now much improved, she still has chronic joint pain. Fortunately, she gets relief from herbs such as ginger, turmeric, boswellia, and devil’s claw. Acupuncture and massage therapy have further relieved her aches and pains.

Osgood’s condition, osteoarthritis, is the most common form of arthritis, in which the cartilage that cushions the joints breaks down faster than the body can replace it. Nearly 12 percent of Americans older than twenty-five have it. After age forty-five, nine out of ten Americans show signs of the disease on X-rays. That’s because osteoarthritis can result from either simple wear and tear on the joints or more serious trauma such as an injury like Osgood’s. Rheumatoid arthritis, another relatively common form, afflicts about 2.1 million Americans, mostly women. This form of arthritis is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the joints, but may damage other connective tissue as well.

A healthy lifestyle, including a good diet, weight control, and exercise, is known to have a huge effect on arthritis. A diet high in unsaturated fats, low in saturated fats, and rich in nonallergenic foods can improve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. And a diet rich in antioxidants can retard the progression of osteoarthritis. In a recent study of obese people with osteoarthritis in the knee joints, a six-month program of diet and exercise led to an average weight loss of nineteen pounds and less knee pain and disability.

Conventional treatment of osteoarthritis usually includes relieving pain and inflammation with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen, or one of the lesser-known NSAIDs such as indomethacin (Indocin), diclofenac (Voltaren), or piroxicam (Feldene). These drugs block the enzyme systems that produce chemicals called prostaglandins and leukotrienes. The problem is, not all prostaglandins and leukotrienes are pro-inflammatory, and some even have desirable effects, such as protecting the stomach lining. But NSAIDs block all these chemicals, so habitual users of them can experience side effects such as stomach irritation and ulcers. Newer medicines called COX-2 inhibitors, such as celecoxib (Celebrex) and rofecoxib (Vioxx), are more selective in their inhibition of inflammatory chemicals and hence have fewer side effects.

More natural, safer remedies, including herbs and other supplements, can also relieve arthritis aches and pains. Even though most of the herbs traditionally used to treat arthritis inhibit the same inflammatory chemicals as the NSAIDs, they do so with minimal to nonexistent side effects. Why? Researchers don’t know yet. It may be because, like the COX-2 inhibiting drugs, they selectively target the inflammatory chemicals that cause arthritis. At this stage, that’s only a guess.

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