Arthritis, Joint Pain and Stiffness

Arthritis is chronic inflammation of the joints that affects an estimated 70 million Americans. Its symptoms include pain, swelling, limited range of motion, redness, and warmth around the joints.  There are many different kinds of arthritis, but in general, osteoarthritis is caused by the breakdown of cartilage from aging and wear and tear on your joints.  Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that affects the lining of the joints, which can cause bone erosion and joint deformity.

In Chinese medicine, arthritis is considered a Bi (pronounced bee) syndrome, which just means that a blockage of energy or blood in your energetic pathways is causing your pain.  The blockage is caused by external pathogens (or causes of illness) that act a little bit like bad weather in your body.  They can include wind, cold, dampness, or heat.  These pathogens can affect your bones, muscles, tendons, but in arthritis, they affect your joints.

Bi syndromes tend to occur because you’re depleted in some way, either from poor diet, fatigue, bad digestion, working too hard, or some other funkiness.  When you’re run down or depleted, your body’s protective bubble that fights off pathogens is also depleted.   This allows those bad weather pathogens to enter and cause all kinds of trouble.

You can tell what kind of pathogen is causing your arthritis by the nature of your pain.  In general:

  • Arthritis caused by a wind pathogen moves around from joint to joint.
  • Cold pain tends to be pretty severe, is worse in cold weather, and your joints may actually feel cooler to the touch than the rest of your body.
  • Dampness is characterized by fixed pain that feels achy and heavy and can be accompanied by numbness and/or swelling.
  • Red, swollen, warm, and painful joints are associated with heat.  You may feel feverish when you have a heat pathogen, and your pain tends to flare up in the warm weather.

To make your life even more miserable, more than one pathogen at a time can cause your joint pain. For example, you may have arthritis that is caused by a combination of wind, cold, and damp.  In that case, you may have joint pain that moves around, feels heavy, is severely achy, and is worse when the weather is damp and cold.

Using Acupuncture for Arthritis, Joint Pain and Stiffness

If you seek out an acupuncturist or practitioner of Chinese medicine for your arthritis, they may incorporate several different healing tools into their treatment.  A practitioner would generally begin with acupuncture, choosing points near the affected areas, as well as points to deal with the pathogens that are causing your pain.  You acupuncturist may also needle some ear acupuncture points that correspond to the areas in which you’re having pain.

There are a number of Chinese herbal formulas that are helpful in treating arthritis pain.  If your acupuncturist prescribes herbs, he or she would choose a formula based on the nature of your pain.  For example if your arthritis is caused by damp and heat, you would need herbs that clear the heat and drain or dry the dampness.

Other therapies might include applying heat, food therapy, and some tweaks in your lifestyle.  Some things that you can do yourself include:

  • Get moving.  You don’t have to kill the world, but movement helps loosen things up, and it can help move energy and blood in your pathways.
  • Heat it up or cool it off.  If your arthritis is worse in the cold weather or feels cold to the touch, apply some heat.  If it’s hot, cool it off, but don’t overdo the ice, because too much can make your joints stiffen up.
  • Get enough rest.  Remember, Bi syndromes tend to be the result of your body being depleted in some way.  You heal and rejuvenate when you rest.  This includes getting enough sleep every night.
  • Jettison the stress. I know you’ve heard this a million times, but really, stress makes everything worse.
  • Avoid activities that aggravate your pain.  Um…this seems pretty obvious—if it hurts, cut it out.  I’m mostly talking to you runners with arthritic knees.
  • Eat to ease inflammation.  Make sure you get enough of the right kinds of fats—Omega 3’s, which help clear inflammation from your body.  Good foods include cold water fish, like salmon, mackerel, and herring, as well as plant-based fats, like flax seed (oil), walnuts and nuts in general, seeds, and avocados.
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