An unfortunate part of aging is the eventual development of arthritis, which is the long term wearing away of the padding and lubrication in the joints due to age or over use. This causes bone to grind on bone leading to joint deformity, decreased mobility and pain. When this occurs in a joint it is called Osteoarthritis (OA). Young people though can also develop OA from injury or high level sports which have worn the joints out prematurely. Another form is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), which is an auto immune condition that also results in joint deformity and pain, but due to inflammation caused by the immune system attacking the body. Rheumatoid Arthritis can occur at any age and in clinic I’ve even seen it in teenagers, but commonly it’s seen in people over the age of 30. The diagnosis for RA is with a blood test for the Rheumatoid Factor (RF), showing the auto-immune response of the body. I have though had many patients come to my clinic seeking treatment being diagnosed with RA, but being RF negative, or not even being tested at all. It seems that any long term joint swelling and inflammation can be classified as RA these days. Either one or several joints can develop either form of arthritis, it comes down to how active you are and the injuries you’ve sustained. Though neither form of arthritis exists within Acupuncture, their pathology falls under the heading of “bi syndrome”, meaning pain syndromes caused by blockages and wind in the muscles and tendons.
Osteoarthritis according to Acupuncture
Pain in Acupuncture is the stagnation of Qi and Blood. Qi stagnation is a dull ache where if the Blood also stagnates the pain is sharper and more fixed in location. As we age our ability to make and circulate Qi and Blood diminishes, like kinks in a hose, places for stagnations to accumulate will be often be at joints. These stagnations can cause malnourishment of the surrounding tissue which leads to accumulation of dampness that can develop into physical deformities and inflammation. Osteo arthritis In Chinese Medicine is often diagnosed as either damp, heat, cold or a combination depending on the symptoms. This then causes Qi and Blood to stagnate generating pain. Acupuncture is proven helpful in this area, it works to remove the blockages and help fresh nourishment into the damaged area to ease pain. Latest research shows that Acupuncture is more effective than Biomedicine for Osteoarthritis of the knee. It can also help slow further degeneration by strengthening the Kidneys and Liver, which are key in nourishing bones and tendons.
Another cause of both forms of arthritis is actually cold. Though it sounds strange, it works on the same premise how a cold pathogen generates a fever. The cold invasion causes blockages and a battle with your body’s immune system that generates heat. Both forms of arthritis have an element of inflammation, but often moving to a warm humid climate relieves the pain. I’ve witnessed many patients with RA joint deformities that vanish whenever they go on holiday to warmer climates. Anyone with OA will be able to tell you when cold/wet weather is coming due to the pain in their joints. This occurs as the environmental warmth is additional Yang, which has a strong moving and transformation ability. This helps move the stagnations causing the blockages and the body is able to temporarily rebalance itself.
Rheumatoid Arthritis according to Acupuncture
Rheumatoid Arthritis can have several causes in a Acupuncture framework, as there is no such pathology as “Auto immune”. It can be caused by a damp heat pathogen which has lodged itself in a joint like the knee causing localised swelling and pain. I’ve seen this in clinic post viral infection or in patient’s who’ve been ill while travelling and upon returning develop strange joint swelling and pain. Poor diet, excessive consumption of hot spicy food, alcohol or smoking puts excess heat into the body, which circulates and eventually lodges in the smaller collateral channels. RA begins at the smaller joints and works its way back, so often swelling and deformity is noticed in the last knuckles and spreads up the limb. This heat can cause fluids to become turbid and pathogenic which causes inflammation and contributes to the pain. By draining the dampness and clearing the heat Acupuncture can help relieve some of the pain and discomfort associated with RA. It can also help slow it spreading and reduce the joint to deformity to try and improve joint mobility.