Of the 80 or so medically recognised joint conditions, osteoarthritis is by far the most common; it affects one third of the population aged between 45 and 65, and about three quarters of individuals after this age are affected to some degree. While the condition does not kill anyone, it is nonetheless important. The pain and stiffness characteristic of osteoarthritis may dramatically reduce mobility, and this can have serious implications for one’s quality and enjoyment of life. Traditionally, osteoarthritis is treated with painkillers known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen. However, there is good evidence that while these drugs may help dull the pain associated with the condition, they also speed up the rate at which the disease progresses. Fortunately, in recent years, there has been significant interest in natural treatments for osteoarthritis. There is now good evidence that natural medicine offers safe and effective approaches to this debilitating condition.
Osteoarthritis is characterised by the degeneration of the cartilage which lines the bones and acts as a sock-absorber. The condition predominantly affects hips, knees, spine and hands. Osteoarthritis commonly leads to problems with pain and/or stiffness in the affected joint(s). Ultimately, it can progress to cause major disability, and a significant number of sufferers eventually require surgical joint replacement.
There are a number of dietary approaches which may prove effective in controlling osteoarthritis. One of the most commonly used diets is one which eliminates foods of the nightshade family such as tomato, potato, pepper (capsicum) and aubergine. These foods contain a substance called solanine which some scientists believe may be involved in the processes which cause osteoarthritis. The elimination of nightshade foods from the diet seems to work for about half of sufferers, but often takes about six months before real benefit is experienced.
Conventional medical wisdom has often dictated that people with osteoarthritis should avoid exercise as it may accelerate the rate at which cartilage degenerates. However, the healthy function of our joints is to a degree determined by the muscles that move the joints; the stronger the muscles are, the healthier the joint. Keeping active is therefore actually an important part of combating osteoarthritis. Swimming is an excellent form of exercise because it strengthens muscles and increases suppleness without putting strain on the body. Walking and stretching exercises are often beneficial too.
Many natural agents offer relief from osteoarthritis, and may even help to reverse the condition. One of the most widely researched natural remedies is glucosamine sulphate. This compound is an essential building block in the manufacture of cartilage tissue, and may actually help to repair damaged cartilage. Several studies show that glucosamine sulphate taken in supplement form is effective in the treatment of osteoarthritis, and is as good as commonly used painkillers at relieving symptoms such as pain and stiffness. The normal recommended dose is 500 mg, three times a day. Once symptoms have improved, it is usually possible to taper down to a once or twice-a-day dose.
Another agent which may help osteoarthritis sufferers is chondroitin sulphate. Chondroitin sulphate seems to work by attracting fluid into the cartilage tissue. This may improve the spongy, shock-absorbing qualities of the cartilage, and may also help bring essential nutrients to the area too. Last year, a study in the Journal of Rheumatology reviewed seven trials which examined the effect of chondroitin sulphate on osteoarthritis. Chondroitin was found to be significantly better than placebo (inactive medication) at controlling symptoms such as pain and stiffness. The normal recommended dose of chondroitin is 400 mg, three times a day. As with glucosamine, this dose can often be reduced as symptoms improve. Glucosamine and chondroitin are very often combined together in nutritional supplements designed to enhance joint health. Interestingly, an animal study presented at the American College of Rheumatology’s annual meeting in 1999 showed that glucosamine and chondroitin appear to work best when used in combination.
Despite their clear benefits, the medical establishment has been slow to embrace glucosamine and chondroitin in the treatment of osteoarthritis. However, just last month it was announced that the American government is to fund a �£10 M long term study into the effects of glucosamine and chondroitin on osteoarthritis in around 1500 individuals. Maybe once the results of this study are published, these very useful natural agents will make their way into mainstream medicine.
Green-lipped muscle extract is another natural agent which has developed a reputation as an effective treatment of osteoarthritis. Over a hundred years ago it was noted that eating green-lipped mussels seemed to protect Mauris in New Zealand from developing arthritis. Research later identified a compound known called eicosatetaenoic acid (ETA) which was found to have anti-inflammatory actions more potent than that of commonly prescribed painkillers. Studies clearly show that extracts of green-lipped mussels containing ETA can be effective in controlling painful, arthritic conditions. One Scottish study published in 1998 found that treatment with green-lipped muscle extract (1050 mg per day of dried powder or 210 mg per day of concentrated extract) brought statistically significant improvements in the symptoms of osteoarthritis within three months.