Arthritis – the Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach
Western medicine – Arthritis is a term for a disorder where there is inflammation affecting the joints in the body. There are more than 100 separate categories of arthritis. The most common is osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) and rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disease; other types include traumatic arthritis, gout, lupus, and fibromyalgia.
Osteoarthritis is a disease of the cartilage in the joints and underlying bone. Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disease initially affecting the synovial membrane. Gout is characterised by uric acid crystals in the joints. Traumatic arthritis is primarily a disorder of the joint capsule and synovial membrane.
Treatment of arthritis with Western medicine has not been that successful. Drugs tend to be palliative, have unwanted side-effects and are often ineffective. Ultimately joint replacement surgery may be the last resort.
TCM understanding of arthritis. TCM’s framework for arthritis takes a sophisticated approach. In TCM, arthritis is classified as “Painful Obstruction Syndrome”. The main feature of this is pain and stiffness, caused by a disruption to the distribution of qi and blood. If qi and blood are unable to move freely, there will be pain; causes can include physical blockage e.g. from trauma and scarring or sluggish qi and blood flow, alongside the presence of an obstructing pathogen. These obstructing pathogens are described in terms of the climate.
In TCM, the climate is viewed as an external cause of specific conditions; climatic pathogens are “wind”, “heat”, “damp”, and “cold”. These pathogens can trigger an arthritic condition. Arthritis symptoms themselves will also reflect the qualities of the climates.
Wind. Like windy weather, arthritis symptoms appear suddenly and disappear quickly.
The symptoms usually affect the upper part of the body first and tend to move from one joint to another. Wind carries other pathogenic climatic factors with it, e.g. wind-cold, wind-damp. In Chinese medicine, wind is called “the spearhead of a thousand diseases”. Pathogenic wind disturbs the circulation of both qi and blood.
Cold causes the body to contract and stagnates qi and blood circulation. Cold symptoms are usually fixed in location and will feel better for warmth and worse in the cold. If cold is part of the diagnosis for your arthritis, the area feels cold to touch, with stiffness and a fixed pain. We treat this pain with a combination of different techniques; acupuncture stimulates qi and blood flow and also we will add heat, either with heat lamps or by using warming moxibustion treatment. Chinese herbal medicine prescriptions will include lots of warm herbs e.g., cinnamon twig.
Damp also slows qi and blood circulation but there are other symptoms too. It makes the function of the joint very sluggish and congested. Characteristic sensations produced by damp are feelings of heaviness, dull aching, or numbness. Often, the joint is also swollen. Damp weather or living in a damp environment will aggravate the arthritis symptoms. Damp is the most difficult to treat of the pathogenic factors.
Heat Redness and feelings of heat in the joints indicate heat. The joints may also be swollen. Often long-standing cold or dampness will eventually become a hot condition. In TCM heat is a common diagnosis for someone suffering with chronic arthritis. Gout is commonly attributed to Damp-Heat.
In TCM, dysfunction of the internal organ systems can predispose us to the development of musculoskeletal pain. Insufficiency of qi and blood inhibits our body’s ability to repel pathogens and repair damage. The climatic pathogens invade more easily and are harder for the body to get rid of. Musculoskeletal tissues are subject to wear and tear from normal activity, with maintenance and repair a continual process requiring a steady and reliable supply of qi and blood.
TCM treatment. When we first see a patient with arthritis we make a full diagnosis of all the contributing factors. Mostly we will be treating people who have had arthritis for several years. We access how much wind, dampness, cold or heat is present. Also, there is usually both qi and blood deficiency alongside qi and blood stagnation. Whether we are treating with acupuncture or Chinese herbal medicine, both the acupuncture points and Chinese herbal prescriptions need to address all aspects of the condition. We can get great results though and you won’t get any side-effects from some of the harsher western medications!
Personally, I love treating arthritis and have had a lot of success. Patients who come to me for treatment in the early stages of their arthritis can prevent it developing into something more severe. If patients do end up requiring joint replacement surgery, acupuncture and herbal medicine will speed up their recovery.
At the Jade Centre we see many patients each year to help them to manage their arthritis. Contact us now and book an appointment to get the support you need,