With Autoimmune Arthritis Day upon us, May 20th provides an important opportunity to bring greater awareness to this group of serious, debilitating diseases and to offer evidence-based hope for sufferers who often struggle to find relief.
This range of diseases is not particular and can strike people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds. While osteoarthritis makes a large contribution to the arthritic numbers, autoimmune arthritis’ come with a raft of compounding and complex signs and symptoms and deserve special attention. Diagnoses that fit under this umbrella include ankylosing spondylitis, juvenile, psoriatic, and reactive arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and its most common and well-known form, rheumatoid arthritis.
A study published in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatology noted that an astounding 52.5 million American adults had a doctor-diagnosed arthritic or other rheumatic condition, with those stats set to continue their upward trajectory.
By 2040, the number of arthritis sufferers over the age of 18 is expected to hit an all-time high of 78.4 million; almost 26% of Americans. These numbers include those with and without autoimmune driven arthritis.
When we focus on rheumatoid arthritis (RA) alone, the study, Prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis in the United States adult population in healthcare claims databases, 2004–2014, has previously provided a conservative estimate that around 1.36 million US adults and 1-2% of the world’s population are affected. Women are at greater risk by a factor of two to three, especially as age rises and the 55th year milestone is reached and passed.
This potentially nasty form of autoimmune arthritis can destroy a person’s quality of life, but it doesn’t have to. Before we share approaches to incorporate natural treatments into the therapeutic approach, let’s look at the basics.
What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
The immune system should act to protect against foreign invaders. However, the body can turn on itself. As it does, autoimmune arthritis may develop along with the degradation of joints and other tissues.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system’s antibodies attack the synovium; the soft tissue that lines the spaces within diarthrodial joints, bursae, sheaths and tendons. This can cause inflammation and pain, and without appropriate and early treatment, irreversible damage, deformity and loss of function.
Which joints are Affected?
The small joints including the hands and feet are common target sites, with the elbows, wrists, knees and ankles also often involved in the disease process.
Over time, cartilage can become damaged and joint spaces altered. This can lead to misshapen joints like swan-neck deformity, hitchhiker’s thumb, and claw toe deformity.
Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
While there are a range of symptoms, the hallmark of rheumatoid arthritis is symmetrical swelling of numerous small joints, particularly those of the hands and feet. The onset is typically gradual and evolves over weeks or months, with joint stiffness and accompanying pain and tenderness often the first indicators. Whereas morning stiffness in osteoarthritis usually lasts for mere minutes, in RA it continues for an hour or more.
Widespread symptoms often feature in rheumatoid arthritis, with depression, fatigue, and malaise common. Low-grade fever occasionally strikes. Loss of appetite can occur. Rheumatoid nodules may develop beneath the skin.
Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis
As is the case with many perplexing diseases, there are a number of theoretical causes. These include:
- Theory of bacteria: According to Rheumatoid arthritis: how well do the theories fit the evidence? “The parallels between mycobacterial disease and RA are striking.” More recent research supports this claim, and it is believed that infection by a slow growth bacteria may contribute to both the initiation and exaggeration of rheumatoid arthritis.
- Genetics: As with many diseases, a genetic predisposition is assumed. Yet inheritance patterns aren’t clear. The most important genetic risk factors that have been detected involve variations in the human leukocyte antigen genes, which are important in helping the body to distinguish its own proteins from those of foreign bacteria and viruses.
- Hormones: As women carry significantly greater risk for developing RA, it has been suggested this may infer a hormonal link. RA symptoms may be reduced, even eliminated, during pregnancy and flare during breastfeeding. While speculation exists, this theory is, as yet, unsupported by ample research.
- Environmental factors: Environment plays an important role in how well the human body functions, so it is unsurprising that there are research-based links between the surroundings of those with RA and their health. Inhaled mineral dust (especially silica), air pollution (particularly exposure to nitrogen dioxide), and cigarette smoke (both in active and passive smoking) have each been linked to an increased risk of developing RA.
Conventional treatment for rheumatoid arthritis has traditionally revolved around pharmaceutical interventions. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), corticosteroids, and disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) like methotrexate, form the therapeutic backbone for many sufferers.
These medications can importantly reduce pain and disease progression but also come with significant risk profiles. NSAIDS have been shown to cause adverse drug reactions including bleeding, heart attack, kidney damage, and stroke. Corticosteroids can increase fracture rates, sepsis, and venous thromboembolism. Methotrexate can cause gastrointestinal issues like nausea and vomiting, mouth ulcers or sores, plus headaches and fatigue.
Natural Treatments to Augment Therapy
There are a range of natural treatments able to augment physical and psychological relief and increase function for those with rheumatoid arthritis.
- Light Exercise: Light exercise is important for maintaining flexibility, fitness, function, and strength, as well as a healthy mood. These benefits are important in RA. Just remember: It’s important to moderate intensity and type of exercise to best suit the capabilities of the person with RA.
- Anti-inflammatory diet: It is through the diet that nutrients required for optimal function and repair are obtained. It is important to never underestimate the power of food. Rheumatoid arthritis is accompanied by increased inflammation, so choosing sustenance that does not trigger this response is sensible. Wild caught mackerel and salmon, walnuts, almonds and chia seeds, virgin olive oil, tomatoes, berries and green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach are ideal anti-inflammatory choices. Avoid refined sugar, processed and packaged foods, bakery goods, fried foods, alcohol, and trans fats as much as possible.
- Heat and Cold Packs: These old school remedies are well loved by those with a range of arthritic diseases. Heat packs can ease stiffness, pain and tired muscles. Cold packs may calm inflamed joints and reduce swelling.
- Meditation: Mindfulness meditation can reduce pain, enhance the ability to cope, and improve wellbeing for those with RA. The study, Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in rheumatoid arthritis patients, found that participating in a meditation training program significantly lessened psychological distress and enhanced the wellbeing of its participants.
- Supplements: There are a number of supplements that may aid in respite and repair for those with rheumatoid arthritis. These include probiotics that specifically contain Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus delbrueckii, omega 3 fatty acids, and the herb called Thunder God Vine (Tripterygium wilfordii).
- Ayurvedic medicine:The fascinating study, The efficacy of Ayurvedic treatment for rheumatoid arthritis: Cross-sectional experiential profile of a longitudinal study, found that targeted treatment through the ancient Indian medical system of Ayurveda led to improvements in grip strength, walking time, swollen and painful joints, a reduction in the RA functional class, and healthier blood work, including lowered erythrocyte sedimentation rate and rheumatoid factor.
- Massage: Medium pressure massage eases muscle tension around effected joints, alleviates pain, and possibly slows disease progression.
- Topical products: There are a variety of naturally-derived topicals on the market that can help ease some of the pain. While our products are not designed for autoimmune diseases, pain sufferers may be able to take some of the edge off with them.
Help Clients Live Pain-free
Rheumatoid arthritis can reach its painful tentacles into both psychological and physical aspects of health and strip the quality of life and capabilities of its sufferers. However, with the right approaches and natural products, it is possible to support and assist your patients to live happier, healthier lives, including the possibility of living pain-free.