Suffering from arthritis is very common and the conventional treatment with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen is fraught with side effects and risks. I’ve written before about the dangers of NSAIDS, including ulcers, kidney toxicity, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. So what are some good alternatives?
Arthritis is a degenerative inflammatory process. The cartilage that cushions our joints slowly wears away leaving painful and inflamed “bone-on-bone” contact. Some types of arthritis are caused by an underlying disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, but most arthritis is the simple wearing out process leading to the formal disease called osteoarthritis (OA). As the cartilage disappears and inflammation sets in the body responds by adding calcium deposits to the inflamed joints which causes the familiar thickening around the joints and calcium spurs noted on xrays.
Support for healthy cartilage is difficult since it has a limited blood supply to assist healing. Once cartilage is worn out and gone it is not able to be replaced nor does it regenerate on its own. Cartilage injuries are very slow to heal.
There are many safe and effective natural treatments for arthritis, including compounds that fight inflammation and support healthy cartilage. Herbs, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and oils are part of a long list of potential treatments.
Nutrients such as chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine sulfate have had mixed results in studies on arthritis. However, the “Glucosamine/Chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial” showed these supplements were equal to the much more expensive and dangerous prescription drug called Celebrex. Neither treatment was better than placebo in mild arthritis, but for severe arthritis the supplements did indeed work better.
MSM (Methyl Sulfonyl Methane) was isolated in the early 80’s. MSM is a natural sulfur compound found in all living things and while MSM is normally found in many common foods it is normally lost from our food during preparation. MSM has been shown to add flexibility to cell walls while allowing fluids to pass through the tissue more easily. MSM enhances tissue pliability and encourages the repair of damaged skin and many clinical studies support the use of MSM for arthritis.
Vitamin C is critical for growth and healing of tissue including cartilage. Most studies show vitamin C helps prevent arthritis from starting but does not change the course of the disease once it is already established. Collagen replacement, especially “type 2” chicken collagen, shows promise in calming the inflammation process.
Many herbs have potent anti-inflammatory benefits. There is a long, long list to consider, but a few that I routinely use with good success include boswellia, curcumin, pycnogenol, ginger, green tea, oregano, basil and more. A combination herbal called “Zyflamend” has worked well for many of my patients. Omega-3 oils also lower inflammation.
Systemic enzyme support (SES) is yet another potent method of lowering inflammation. By packaging certain enzymes so they get absorbed into the bloodstream, they are able to activate a protein that “mops up” inflammation. Wobenyzm is a well known product from Germany that is a mainstay of arthritis treatment in Europe and has been used by millions of patients.
Topical prescription gels are a fantastic method of delivering an anti-inflammatory NSAID medication directly into the joint without getting significant blood levels and the risks that come with it. Studies on topical ketoprofen show 4-7x higher levels of the medication inside the cartilage with 100x less in the bloodstream, thus working better with less side effects. I recommend ketoprofen gel, available by prescription only, and made by a compounding pharmacist at Western Colorado Specialty Pharmacy (243-5050). I have found this product to work much better than some of the topical gels available through commercial pharmacies.
Hormones such as estrogen and testosterone stimulate cartilage growth. Women start development of arthritis rapidly after menopause and the same happens with men over the years of dropping testosterone levels. Research shows that estrogen receptors are present in cartilage and that estrogen stimulates cartilage growth. Similarly testosterone has been shown to have a direct effect on cartilage growth.
A newer treatment involves harvesting stem cells or growth factors from the patient and then injecting them into their arthritic joint. This is showing great promise and I expect we’ll see this therapy grow as it becomes more routinely available.
Rule out underlying causes for the joint pain and inflammation, such as autoimmune disease, delayed food allergies, low thyroid or declining estrogen or testosterone levels. Then, once osteoarthritis is confirmed, try to get on as many natural anti-inflammatory supplements as possible. Pain medications such as acetaminophen can help, while severe, advanced cases often require the addition of modest doses of a pain medication such as codeine, which is safe when prescribed in moderation.
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.