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  • Dr. Matthew Marturano is a naturopathic physician focusing on digestive health and related issues....

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Tue, July 23, 2013
Natural Approaches to Arthritis Relief: Healthier Alternatives to Pain Medications
Arthritis is a medical term meaning inflammation of the joints.  Inflammation which is caused by a progressive degeneration of the joint, often due to overuse, is referred to as osteoarthritis (OA), which is the most common form of arthritis.  Another form, called rheumatoid arthritis (RA), is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the membranes lining one or more joints.  Many other forms of arthritis also exist, but are much less common.   In any case, the outcome is pain and stiffness, which can have a negative impact on quality of life.  According to the Arthritis Foundation, arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States.
As chronic pain is the most common complaint of arthritis sufferers, management of these conditions often revolves around the administration of pain medications, whether over-the-counter or by prescription.  While medications can be safe and effective for some users, they often come with many side effects ranging anywhere from gastrointestinal upset to addiction, and in certain cases, even death.  For example, in 2004, a widely popular anti-inflammatory drug known as Vioxx was pulled off the market after it was discovered that the drug caused somewhere around 100,000 heart attacks.
Generally speaking, dietary supplements pose less risk than medications, however they are also not as reliable in terms of effectiveness.  In addition, the dizzying array of products available, with varying levels of truthfulness among claims and a wide range of training among natural health practitioners, often results in wasted time and money as people bounce around from one product and practitioner to another, without giving a proper evaluation to one strategy before changing gears and trying something else.
A typical approach to management of chronic inflammation is to affect the chemical pathways that produce inflammatory mediators called prostaglandins.  Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) act by blocking the production of certain prostaglandins that increase inflammation in the body.  As essential fatty acids (EFAs) are the nutritional precursors to prostaglandins, their function can also be influenced by our food choices and by dietary supplements.
Excellent food sources of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats include walnuts and flaxseed, and certain fatty fish, such as sardines, herring, mackerel, and salmon.  Other important fats, such as gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) may be conditionally essential in certain people, and can be obtained with supplementation of evening primrose, black currant, or borage oils.  Several studies have suggested a benefit of EFA supplementation for RA, while for OA the research is more suggestive of using certain anti-inflammatory herbs, such as ginger, turmeric, and boswellia.  Cayenne-based creams are also popular choices.
Ultimately, just about any nutrient will play some role in the process of inflammation, and so it may be helpful to use dietary screening and tracking tools, as well as lab testing, to hone in on a person's individual needs.  Tools such as these can be administered by a trained health practitioner.
Other strategies involve physical activity and exercise in order to manage the pain and inflammation.  Physical activity stimulates the release of internal pain killers called endorphins, which can help to naturally alleviate pain.  However, heavy exercise, particularly in those with poor dietary habits, can actually increase inflammation in the body.  Certain people derive more benefit from Eastern-style exercises such as yoga and tai chi. So it is wise to apply a combination of strategies that support each other in a synergistic fashion.
Patterns of stress and tension in the body may cause certain joints to be more prone to the effects of arthritis. As a result therapies that involve more focused exercises, massage, and other bodywork techniques may all help to relieve joint pain.  Acupuncture is often utilized as well as spinal manipulations, and other modalities.
It is also important to consider the non-physical aspects of inflammation.  As inflammation is the physical representation of resistance, it may be helpful to look at the non-physical sources of resistance and stress in our lives, and apply strategies to minimize these and/or become more flexible in our responses.
With all the choices available to us, it is wise to apply some intuition in order to help guide us to a path that will be most helpful.  Engaging positively with any therapy will increase the “placebo effect” rendering it more likely to work for you.  Just keep in mind that, for the same reason, what may have worked best for you may not be the highest path for others.  After all, the most potent factor in the healing equation is you.

(For more information on natural approaches that may be able to help you please visit

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