The word arthritis simply means inflammation of the joints. It can be a symptom of many different disorders including gout, lupus and fibromyalgia. However, there are two main types of arthritis; rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. In autoimmune diseases, the body's defense system becomes confused and starts attacking its own tissues, in this case, the joints. This leads to inflammation, swelling, stiffness and pain. Like many autoimmune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis is characterized by relatively mild periods interspersed with flare ups. These flare ups can be triggered by stress, illness or overexertion.
Rheumatoid arthritis usually affects the hands, feet and wrists. It can affect all ages and is more common in women than in men.
Osteoarthritis is caused by wear and tear of the joints with overuse or age. Over time, the cartilage which protects the joints wears away, allowing bone to grind against bone. This leads to stiffness, aching and pain in the affected joints.
Osteoarthritis usually affects the weight-bearing joints such as the hips and knees. It is more common in older people, or people who are overweight, as this puts extra strain on the joints.
Arthritis in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) does not distinguish between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. It diagnoses all types of joint pain according to each individual patient's symptoms.
This means that two patients with rheumatoid arthritis may be treated very differently, if their symptoms are different. However, a patient with rheumatoid arthritis and one with osteoarthritis may be treated in a similar way, if their symptoms are similar.
In TCM, most cases of arthritis are classified as what is known as “painful obstruction syndrome” or “bi syndrome”. In bi syndrome, the flow of qi and blood becomes impaired due to an invasion by pathogenic wind, damp, heat or cold.
These harmful environmental factors can usually be successfully fought off by your body, but if your defenses are weakened by illness or injury, they can take hold. Once inside your body, these pathogenic factors can cause a blockage. This blockage prevents normal circulation, resulting in inflammation, swelling, stiffness and pain.
The four different types of bi syndrome can be differentiated by their symptoms and treated accordingly.
In TCM, wind is known as “the spearhead of disease”. It can easily penetrate the body's defenses, bringing other pathogenic factors with it as it does. In the case of arthritis, wind bi is characterized by pain which mainly affects the upper body. It is mobile, affecting different joints at different times and is sometimes also known as “wandering bi”.
According to TCM, damp can form as a result of overexposure to damp conditions. It can also be a result of digestive weakness or a diet high in rich, fatty foods. Damp is heavy, and affects mainly the lower limbs. Arthritis caused by damp is usually accompanied by swelling or edema. There may also be numbness or heaviness in the area. Damp bi is affected by wet weather and symptoms will be worse on rainy or humid days.
Hot bi is caused by an excess of heat in the body. There will be signs of inflammation such as redness, warmth to touch, swelling and pain. Hot bi is worsened by heat and will be relieved by ice packs or cold weather.
Cold bi can be caused by overexposure to cold conditions or by the body failing to produce enough warmth by itself. The pain is stabbing in nature, fixed in one spot and usually affects the extremities (due to decreased circulation) or the lower back. It is made worse by cold weather and inactivity and relieved by heat packs, warm baths and hot weather. Due to the severe nature of the pain caused by this condition, it is also sometimes called “painful bi”.
If bi syndrome is left untreated over time, it can cause a build up of phlegm in the body. In TCM, phlegm can mean anything which causes lumps, bumps, swellings, cysts or tumors. In the case of arthritis, it refers to deformity of the joints.
Another reason for arthritis in traditional Chinese medicine is weakness of the Liver and Kidneys. The Liver is said to be responsible for the joints and tendons, and the Kidneys play an important role in bone health. As these organs' functions naturally decline with age, pain and stiffness of the joints can occur. This is seen as a normal part of the ageing process, but can be slowed by using herbal formulae and acupuncture to nourish the organs.
Traditional Chinese Medicine for Arthritis Pain Management
There are many different ways in which TCM can help to relieve the symptoms of arthritis.
Acupuncture or massage may be used to encourage free circulation of qi and blood, while reducing inflammation and pain. Acupuncture is known to be an effective, natural painkiller. It influences the central nervous system and triggers the release of endorphins, which act in a similar way to opiate medication, but without the side effects.
Herbal formulae can be used to rectify underlying weaknesses and help the body to expel any invading pathogenic factors. There are also many herbal liniments which can be applied directly to the joints to relieve pain.
TCM also advocates the use of gentle exercise such as tai chi or qi gong. These both help to keep the joints flexible and supple, while improving balance and mobility. These exercises are also great for your general health and well-being and are an easy and cost-effective way to keep your joints healthy.
Last but not least, diet plays an important role in treating any disease with TCM. Your practitioner will advise you what you should be eating and what to avoid depending on your individual symptoms and constitution. This will allow you to take small steps every day towards relieving your arthritis symptoms and improving your overall health too.