Between 35 and 40 million Americans are affected by arthritis. It is one of the most prevalent chronic health problems in the United States with a cost of $64.8 billion per year in medical care and lost wages. Among those 65 years and older, arthritis is epidemic with an estimated 65-85% of all Americans in this age group suffering from joint pain ranging in severity from a minor inconvenience to a severely disabling disease. Even people under 45 may suffer from arthritis as the result of traumatic injury and/or surgery.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis means joint (arthr-) inflammation (-itis). When prefaced by the word osteo, it simply means inflammation of the joints of the bones. Other names for osteoarthritis (OA) are degenerative joint disease (DJD), osteoarthroses (i.e., bone joint condition), and hyperthrophic osteoarthritis. It is the most common of all forms of joint disease, typically first appearing asymptomatically in the 20s and 30s and becoming universal by age 70. As the authors of The Merck Manual, one of the "bibles" of Western MDs, says, "Almost all person by age 40 have some pathologic changes in the weight-bearing joints, although relatively few people are symptomatic [by that age]."
While both men and women get arthritis, the incidence in women is significantly higher – about two to one. However, its onset is typically higher in men than in women. Osteoarthritis is found in all climates throughout the world. In fact, OA occurs in almost all vertebrates. The only two mammals it does not occur in are bats and sloths which both spend much of their lives hanging upside down!
What causes arthritis?
According to modern Western medicine, its etiology or cause is unknown. OA appears to be due to a complex set of interacting mechanical, biological, biochemical, and enzymatic feedback loops. When one or more of these components fails to do its job properly, this sets in motion the changes in the tissue of the joints we call arthritis. Some of the factors which may contribute to the onset of arthritis are congenital joint abnormalities, genetic defects, infectious, metabolic, endocrine, and neuropathic diseases, virtually any disease which alters the normal structure and function of the cartilage covering the inner surfaces of the joint, and acute and chronic trauma affecting this cartilage. In terms of this last cause, we are talking about wear and tear. Any motion which repeatedly puts stress on the inner surfaces of the joint may result in micro-trauma continues year after year, as in certain occupations such as foundry workers and bus drivers, a whole series of micro-trauma sooner or later adds up to significant damage to the surfaces of the joints. Whether this happens sooner or later depends on other factors affecting our health, such as our metabolism, our hormones, our immune system, and various infectious diseases.
What are the signs and symptoms of arthritis?
The onset of arthritis is usually subtle and gradual and begins by affecting only one or two joints. Its first symptom is pain and this pain is typically made worse by exercise. When one wakes up in the morning, the affected joint may be stiff, but this improves with movement after 15-30 minutes. As the disease progresses, joint mobility becomes diminished and flexion contractures occur. One may hear a grating noise and feel a grating sensation within the joint when it is moved. This is called crepitus. Eventually, the affected joints become enlarged and may even become hot to the touch and red in color. As the ligaments holding the joint in place become lax, the joint may become increasingly unstable and increasingly painful. Tenderness on palpation around the affected joint and pain on passive motion (i.e., when someone else moves the joint for you) are late signs in the progression of this disease. Adding insult to the injury, muscular spasms add to the pain. Eventually, as the inflammatory process continues to affect the cartilage and underlying bone tissue, the joint may become deformed, the surrounding muscles may atrophy, and nodular pseudocysts may appear.
So what does Chinese medicine have to offer sufferers of arthritis?
Chinese medicine has a much more down to earth and immediately understandable vision of what causes joint pain and what you can do for it. For arthritis, Chinese medicine offers a whole range of natural treatments which help relieve pain but also promote healing of the tissues of the joints. These treatments include professionally prescribed and administered acupuncture and moxibustion, Chinese medical massage, and Chinese herbal medicine taken internally and externally on the affected area. In addition, there are a number of highly effective, time-tested Chinese home remedies and self-treatments for joint pain.