The goal is less pain, more mobility

I often ask my patients, “Why are you taking drugs when you haven’t tried natural ways to ease the pain of arthritis?” Many natural drugs can not only treat but also prevent the wear-and-tear arthritis (osteoarthritis) of aging.

Vitamin C is the most overlooked natural remedy. Osteoarthritis is chiefly an impairment of cartilage and when it deteriorates with age, bones grind against one another, causing pain. The key to avoiding this is to keep cartilage healthy. A prime way is with adequate amounts of vitamin C, needed to manufacture collagen, an ingredient of cartilage.

Researchers at Boston University Medical Center studied the vitamin C intake of 640 people. They discovered that those with a higher consumption of vitamin C were protected against progression of osteoarthritis of the knee. It also slowed development of knee pain.

How much C is needed? Linus Pauling, two-time Nobel Prize winner reported that, unlike animals, humans do not manufacture vitamin C. So the ship’s cat survived long voyages to the New World while sailors died from scurvy.

Pauling believed that most people are deficient in this vitamin. He thout it ironic that gorillas in captivity receive 5,000 milligrams (mg) of C daily and yet the recommended daily amount for humans is only 75 mg. Since Pauling believed big doses of C were needed to also keep arteries healthy he routinely took 20,000 mg of C daily. But if you wish to increase your intake of this vitamin, discuss the matter with your physician before you begin. Large amounts can cause diarrhea and abdominal cramps.

If you don’t use your joints, you lose them. Exercise pushes nutrients into the joints to nourish cartilage. I’m convinced that underuse, not overuse, along with inadequate amounts of vitamin C, is the reason so many people need hip and knee replacements.

Glucosamine sulfate and chondroitin sulfate are building blocks of cartilage and occur naturally in the body. Glucosamine gives cartilage its structure. Chondroitin works with glucosamine to attract and hold water, providing cartilage with its cushioning effect. So consume a few glasses of water or other liquids daily to keep cartilage well hydrated.

Several reports show patients taking 1,500 mg of glucosamine and 1,200 mg of chondroitin daily with meals had less pain and increased mobility compared to those treated with a placebo. A Belgian study showed cartilage loss either stopped or slowed down when patients took these supplements. In another study, the benefits of glucosamine and chondroitin continued after doses were stopped, proving they provide more than temporary relief. Although there are contradictory studies, in my estimation, these supplements are worth trying.

Glucosamine is made from shellfish shells, so people with shellfish allergy should avoid it. Those with diabetes should watch their blood sugar levels; animal studies show these supplements may increase insulin resistance. And chondroitin can cause bleeding in people who take blood thinners.

A healthy diet is powerful therapy for any condition. Studies show that a mostly vegetarian diet has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect in improving joint pain. And if patients lose weight with this diet, that’s all the better for joints.

Patients with arthritis should concentrate on complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, vegetables, legumes and fruits. They contain antioxidant-rich vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that provide many benefits.

Omega-3 fatty acids are high in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and are present in fish oils. They help ease arthritis pain. Flaxseed oil is a good source of essential fatty acids. Or take two 360 mg capsules of EPA twice a day with meals.

A report from the Mayo Clinic claims SAM-e (S-adenosylmethionine), a nutritional supplement, has been shown to reduce pain, and Ayurvedic, a blend of ginger, turmeric, frankincense and ashwagandha, may provide sustained relief.

To my knowledge, this natural approach to treating arthritis hasn’t killed anyone. But every year in Canada, 2,000 people die from gastro-intestinal bleeding due to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). It seems reasonable to try the non-lethal approach first.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is the pen name of Ken Walker, MD, who practises medicine in Toronto.