Expert Advice on Common Diseases
Expert Advice-Treatment of Arthritis in Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM):
Healing Arthritis with Chinese Medicine
Each year millions of American workers are sidelined by joint
pain. If the pain is mild, many just "tough it out," but find that the
problem gets worse year by year. Severe joint pain can incapacitate people,
making it impossible for them to exercise or live the life they want to live.
Most people with joint pain are diagnosed with arthritis, which is a general
term for a number of different conditions that involve swollen, painful, and/or
stiff joints. The two most common forms of arthritis are rheumatoid arthritis,
which affects more than 6.5 million people in the United States alone; and
osteoarthritis, which is an age-related degeneration of joints. One in seven
Americans is afflicted with osteoarthritis, and some are virtually housebound by
In the West, anti-inflammatory drugs are commonly prescribed
for arthritis. In the East, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, with their
thousand-year-old history, are the major health care modalities used to fight
joint and musculo-skeletal disorders including arthritis. These ancient
therapies are still used because they are empirically effective, and have stood
the test of time. Now they are standing to meet the tests of Western medicine.
Arthritis in Conventional Medicine
Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, infectious arthritis,
chemically-induced arthritis, temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ), juvenile
rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and gout are all types of arthritis
that are differentiated in conventional Western medicine. The most commonly seen
forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
joint pain of osteoarthritis is primarily due to the gradual loss of protective
cartilage. Physical injury, mechanical stress or metabolic abnormality can break
down the cartilage which cushions the ends of the bones from rubbing against
each other. As a result, bones begin to grate against each other, producing pain
and further degeneration.
Rheumatoid Arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is the
most severe type of inflammatory joint disease. It is an auto-immune disorder in
which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues, damaging joints and
the surrounding soft tissue. Painful, stiff and deformed joints of the hands,
arms, feet and legs are commonly seen.
Anti-inflammatory drugs are the main weapon that conventional
medical doctors prescribe for chronic inflammatory arthritis. Non-steroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibupofen, and gold compounds;
and steroid-based drugs such as corticosteroids and immuno-suppressive drugs are
widely used for arthritis. Long-term use of these medications can produce side
effects such as stomach irritation, gastritis and ulcers. An exercise program
and physical therapy are helpful for osteoarthritis patients to maintain a
satisfactory level of activity. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and
corticosteroids are provided for short-term relief.
Arthritis in Chinese Medicine
In traditional Chinese medicine, the condition that is
congruent with arthritis is called "Bi syndrome." Bi syndrome
manifests as pain, soreness, or numbness of muscles, tendons and joints, and is
the result of the body being "invaded" by the external climatological
factors of Wind, Cold, Heat, and/or Dampness. The symptoms manifested by the
individual depend on which external pathogenic factor is strongest. The four
main patterns of Bi syndrome are differentiated below, and the leading herbs
that are used to treat each pattern are listed.
Wind Pattern. Exposure
to wind, especially when one is unprotected and exposed to the wind for a long
time, is an important cause of the Wind pattern of arthritis. Any Wind pattern
is characterized by movement of symptoms from place to place. In the case of
Wind Bi, there is joint soreness and pain which moves from joint to joint.
Movement of joints is limited, and there is often fever, as well as an aversion
to wind, or windy weather. A thin white tongue coating and a floating pulse are
signs that help Chinese medicine practitioners diagnose Wind Bi. Leading herbs
for this pattern include ledebouriella (Fang Feng), and ephedra (Ma Huang).
Cold Pattern. The Cold pattern of arthritis (Cold
Bi) is characterized by severe pain in a joint or muscle. This pain has a fixed
location, rather than moving about (as in Wind Bi). The pain is relieved by
applying warmth to the affected area, but increases with exposure to cold.
Movement of joints is limited. A thin white tongue coating, combined with a wiry
and tight pulse are signs of Cold Bi. Leading herbs for this pattern include
aconite (Wu Tou), and ephedra (Ma Huang).
Damp Pattern. The Damp pattern of arthritis (Damp
Bi) is characterized by pain, soreness and swelling in muscles and joints, with
a feeling of heaviness and numbness in the limbs. The pain has a fixed location
and is aggravated by damp weather. A white, sticky tongue coating and a soggy,
slow pulse are signs of Damp Bi. Leading herbs for this pattern include coix (Yi
Yi Ren), and lancea atractylodes (Cang Zhu).
Heat Pattern. The Heat pattern of arthritis (Hot
Bi) can develop from any of the above three patterns. It is characterized by
severe pain and hot-red-swollen joints. The pain is generally relieved by
applying cold to the joints. Other symptoms include fever, thirst, anxiety, and
an aversion to wind. A yellow, dry tongue coating and slippery, rapid pulse are
seen with Hot Bi. Leading herbs for this pattern include anemarrhena (Zhi Mu),
gypsum (Shi Gao), and cinnamon (Gui Zhi).
A time-tested herbal formula for joint pain is Joint
Strength (Du Huo Ji Sheng Wan). This herbal combination was written down
about twelve hundred years ago, during the Tang Dynasty. It contains herbs that
relieve pain, as well as herbs that nourish and strengthen the joints. It has
been used by millions of people over the last millennium. You can take it over a
long period of time without worrying about side-effects.
Support for Acupuncture
Joint pain, back pain, and headaches constitute a large
percentage of all the visits paid to doctors’ offices and acupuncture clinics
in any country at all times. In traditional Chinese medical theory, it is
believed that the pathogenic factors that cause Bi syndrome (Wind, Cold, Damp,
Heat) lodge in the body’s meridians (energy pathways) and obstruct the free
flow of Chi and Blood in those meridians. When blood and energy are not able to
flow naturally, they stagnate, causing pain, heat, and other symptoms of
illness. Acupuncture and herbal therapy help to open the blockage, balance the
energy, and harmonize Chi and Blood.
Scientifically proving the validity of these ancient concepts
is challenging, but promising. More and more scientifically-designed clinical
studies support the use of acupuncture for arthritis. One study examined the
effects of acupuncture on 32 osteoarthritis patients waiting for knee
replacement surgery. After nine weeks, patients receiving acupuncture treatments
reported a decrease in pain, while pain increased in untreated patients. The
patients with acupuncture treatments were able to walk farther and faster,
compared with the untreated group. Another study at the University of Maryland
School of Medicine found that 12 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee
improved significantly after acupuncture treatments. These results encouraged
the researchers to do a larger study which is currently under way.
Modern scientific research has also revealed the mechanisms
which provide relief for arthritis patients. Studies show that acupuncture can
stimulate the production of endorphins (natural pain-killing hormones in the
brain), and the anti-inflammatory hormone adrenalcorticotropin. Somehow, the
acupuncture needles trigger the body to heal itself by producing hormones that
reduce pain and inflammation. Acupuncture can then be used on an ongoing basis
to prevent re-occurrence of arthritis once it has been successfully cured.