Developing An Alternative Plan
Developing an Alternative Plan
You've now had a chance to read about the many natural alternatives to drug therapy available to help you cope with arthritis—both its process and its symptoms. These options all have a common goal: to bring your body into a natural state of balance so that your musculoskeletal system can function properly. They each attempt to teach your body to heal itself, with help only from natural substances, human touch, and common sense.
There are some significant differences in philosophy between vari-ous alternatives, however, and deciding which alternative is best for you is a highly personal decision, one that may involve investigating several different options before committing to a particular treatment plan. The following ideas about why and how to choose and use an alternative health care method may help you make some decisions about your next step:
Use holistic medicine as a preventive tool. It is never too early to make sure that your body is in balance by following a holistic approach to health, especially when it comes to a chronic, generally slowly progressive disease like arthritis. The sooner you take control of your health, the more likely you'll be able to both prevent further degeneration of your joints and avoid stress-related chronic strains and pains over the long term.
Invest in some bibliotherapy. A fancy name for learning through reading, bibliotherapy will help you gain a more thorough understanding of the various philosophies of health and disease before you decide how you would like to address your particular medical problem. In Natural Resources, page 168, you'll find a list of the most relevant books on arthritis and natural medicine from which you can choose should you decide to further expand your knowledge of your condition.
Work with a mainstream physician who is willing to explore options with you. As we move toward the twenty-first century, more and more medicine is bound to include the best of both mainstream and alternative options. If your physician is willing to learn, but does not know much about these options, you can share your resources, and this book, with him or her. If you are currently being treated by a physician who is not open to other philosophies and methods, you may want to consider choosing another doctor more sympathetic with your needs.
Live well and in harmony with the universe. If after you've read this book, you decide not to pursue an alternative form of medical care, you still should attempt to open your heart and mind to the natural flow of energy, within and outside of your body. Think about the way you live your life on a day-to-day basis: Is it truly healthy? Does the food you eat nourish your spirit and your body, or do you end up feeling bloated and grouchy? Are you ever able to relax completely, or do you feel under constant pressure? Are your muscles, tendons, and bones strong and supple, or do you often feel stiff, sore, and achy after performing the mildest of exercise? Consider the way you feel every day, and if you think you could feel better, work to make small, incremental changes in your daily habits—even if you decide to forgo a comprehensive natural medicine approach to arthritis.
The rest of this chapter is devoted to answering some of the questions my arthritis patients have asked me, not only about their specific problem, but also about the various treatment options described in this book. We hope that the answers provided address some of your own questions and concerns.
Arthritis and Alternative Medicine
Q. I've suffered from rheumatoid arthritis (RA) since childhood. So far, the pain medication and anti-inflammatories have allowed me to manage my condition, and I have relatively few flare-ups during any given year. But I saw my grandmother, who also had RA, decline rapidly when she hit her 60s. Will natural medicine help me avoid the same fate?
A. It's quite possible. Because both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis tend to be progressive diseases, the more you can do now to limit the damage, the better off your later years will be. Any number of the alternative options offered in this book will help you get started. Check your diet to make sure you're not eating foods that trigger or exacerbate arthritis flare-ups. Make sure you're exercising your joints every day, taking them at least through their full ranges of motion on a regular basis. Are your stress levels in the manageable range, or could you use some help in releasing tension from your body and soul? Without doubt, the more of these practical issues you deal with now, the better off you'll be in the long run. In addition, receiving herbal, bodywork, and other natural treatments for your arthritis today will help you avoid the side effects—both physical and emotional—that occur with long-term use of anti-inflammatory and pain-relief medication.
Q. I've lived to the age of 64 using mainstream medicine to help me survive a heart attack and a car accident. I know that I'm alive today thanks to the high-tech medical care I received at the hospital after those events. Now that my doctor diagnosed me with osteoarthritis—which has attacked my left hip rather badly—I want to explore alternatives, but I don't want to give up on what has worked for me in the past.
A. There is no doubt that modern medical technology saves lives and can help a patient during an acute crisis. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of modern medicine has its limits, including its typical lack of attention to prevention and its frequent inability to address the root causes of chronic, lifestyle-based conditions like arthritis. Fortunately, we are living in a time when high-tech medicine and its holistic counterparts are learning to work in cooperation with one another. Osteopathy is a particularly good example. Osteopaths are medical doctors, with access to, and an affinity for, mainstream medical techniques. Many chiropractors, acupuncturists, and other alternative practitioners also have medical degrees and working relationships with mainstream doctors and health care facilities. Therefore, you'll still have access to the lifesaving (or pain-reducing) diagnostic techniques and medical therapies you feel work for you while investigating holistic options.
A Medical Overview
Q. My grandmother had rheumatoid arthritis and now so do I. Could something like this be hereditary? Should I worry about my kids?
A. "Nature vs. nurture" is one of the oldest conundrums in medicine. It could be that you've inherited an overactive immune system or muscle/joint weakness and passed those traits along to your children. What is a more likely scenario, and ultimately a more empowering one, is that you inherited certain unhealthy habits, including overeating, underexercising, smoking cigarettes, or leading a life filled with too much stress. As for your own children, it's never too early to instill healthy habits that will help your children maintain proper balance and health. By instilling proper diet and exercise habits in your children from a very young age, you could help prevent them from developing musculoskeletal problems later in life. At the very least, you'll help them to limit the damage that is done should the disease strike despite your best efforts.
Q. I've been working as a seamstress for a fashion designer for about eight months. I love my job, but my neck and upper back are under constant strain. With exercise, I'm able to work out most of the stiffness, but I'm afraid that, over time and as I get older, the pain will become entrenched. Could arthritis develop? What can I do to keep my job but protect myself from injury?
A. You're right to start thinking about a solution now, before arthritis does too much damage to your muscles and joints. The first step you might want to take is to consult a specialist in ergonomics: a person trained in making the workplace safe and efficient. She would work with you to make sure that your sewing machine is in an optimal position, that you hold your fingers, wrists, and shoulders properly as you sew, and that your seat level is correct. All of these measures will help protect you from injury as you work.
Q. What are over-the-counter arthritis drugs? Do they work?
A. Man-made drugs, also called pharmaceuticals, are not necessarily considered "bad for you"; in fact, some drugs may be veritable lifesavers under certain circumstances. Self-described "arthritis medications" available over-the-counter are usually simply stronger versions of aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. They may or may not be effective in alleviating your particular pain and inflammation. The thing to remember is that all pharmaceuticals—over-the-counter and prescription—usually focus on alleviating symptoms, not on addressing underlying problems. They also tend to take over body functions rather than help the body to work properly on its own. Finally, drugs often produce unpleasant side effects that, in essence, only add to the state of imbalance that caused the original symptoms to occur. Choosing more natural approaches, such as dietary measures, exercise, and herbal remedies, that attempt to restore the body to proper working order while producing a minimum of side effects is often a much safer alternative.
Choosing an Alternative
Q. I want a homeopath to treat my arthritis. My mainstream physician, who admits to being able to offer me few solutions, objects strongly. What should I do?
A. That's a delicate question without an easy answer. Many reputable and highly qualified mainstream physicians find it difficult to accept the tenets of homeopathy and other forms of alternative health care because many haven't been "proven" according to strict mainstream criteria. But as more studies confirm that mainstream medicine can do little for people with arthritis, more mainstream physicians are willing to explore options with their patients. If your doctor refuses, then I might suggest that you find a new mainstream physician, one who is more willing to explore other treatment options with you.
Q. I've been suffering with joint pain—especially in my spine and shoulders—almost constantly for almost a year. At least once or twice a week, I take a muscle relaxant so that I can sleep and I practically live on ibuprofen and aspirin. Are there alternative therapies that will allow me to quit taking these drugs?
A. All forms of alternative medicine have at least one goal in common: to allow the body to return to its natural state of balance and health. Medications like aspirin and ibuprofen, on the other hand, work by masking symptoms like pain and discomfort, symptoms that are meant to be warning signs that something has gone wrong in the body. Pain medication can be enormously helpful in reducing the often agonizing pain of an acute arthritis flare-up. However, these drugs may end up doing you more harm than good if you don't address the underlying cause of your disease and use all of the methods available—including diet and exercise—to help relieve symptoms. It makes sense for you to begin to look for other solutions rather than simply depend on these drugs to make your life bearable.
Q. I'm very interested in finding a healthy alternative to drugs and surgery and have been reading about the many different options, particularly traditional Chinese medicine. But I've never been a religious person and the emphasis on a spiritual force that helps us heal bothers me.
A. Spirituality is a belief that we are connected to and dependent upon something outside of ourselves, whether that something is nature, each other, or the unknown. It is important to distinguish this from religion, which is a specific belief system that defines and explains that connection. Although Eastern healing systems stem from philosophical and religious beliefs, it is perfectly possible to derive benefits from these systems without subscribing directly to the philosophy. What is important is a belief that you have the power to control your health and your future, and that you can do this by altering the external world (by diet, stopping smoking, exercising, and changing stressful situations) and the internal world (by not holding onto emotions, by learning to relax, to love and to play, and by being hopeful and having positive thoughts). Perhaps, through this process, you'll also find a new way to address spirituality in your life.
The Food Link
Q. I've been dieting since my doctor told me that the excess weight I'm carrying is part of the reason why my knees and ankles hurt so much whenever I have a rheumatoid arthritis flare-up. I've cut out almost all fat from my diet, mostly because I'm using so many of the fat-free products now available, but I haven't been able to lose any weight. In fact, I think I've gained some. What am I doing wrong?
A. You may be eating as many calories and as much sugar as you have in the past—or maybe more. Although consuming too much fat, particularly saturated fat like butter and animal fat, is the major cause of weight gain, the fact is that eating too much food of any kind—fat-free or not—will put on the pounds, too. Indeed, every time you eat more calories than you burn off, you gain some weight. Make sure you're not overloading on empty calories—like those that make up fat-free chocolate cake—at the expense of lower-calorie, healthier foods like grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Q. I consume quite a lot of diet soda. Could the preservatives and additives in the soda be contributing to my arthritis?
A. It's possible that a sensitivity to those substances could be irritating your joints and muscle tissue. However, I would look at more likely sources of the problem first, such as how much you exercise, the work you perform on a daily basis, and even more likely food culprits, like those of the nightshade family.
Q. I love to eat fish and hear that it's a good source of protein and pretty low in fat. Am I right?
A. As long as you don't cook your fish in fat or load it with heavy cream sauces or dressings (like tartar sauce), you've made an excellent choice for your general health and for any weight loss efforts you've embarked upon. Not only does fish tend to have less fat than meat does, but the fat that is in fish contains a special substance, omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids, found in salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and anchovies, reduce the aches and pains associated with inflammation.
Q. Is it possible to cure arthritis through diet alone?
A. Because the causes of arthritis—indeed, of any chronic disease—are varied and complex, it is unlikely that changing just one aspect of your life will permanently alleviate your problems. Keeping yourself at a normal weight and providing your body with all the raw materials it needs to build and maintain muscle and bone will, of course, help you stay balanced and centered.
Bringing your body into a true state of harmony involves not only addressing nutritional deficiencies or excesses, but also examining your emotional and spiritual state and working to find inner peace. That's why a holistic approach, as embodied in traditional Chinese or Indian medicine, is a good choice for many people suffering from arthritis.
Exercise and Rest
Q. I know that exercise is an important part of any treatment for arthritis, but I also know that exercise can cause injuries. I also have high blood pressure. Should I exercise or not?
A. Before you start any exercise program, get your doctor's permission. If your joints are severely damaged or your blood pressure dangerously high, he or she may recommend very mild and short periods of exercise for a number of weeks—say, walking at a slow pace for ten minutes—until you build up some cardiovascular and muscular endurance. Your doctor will probably recommend that you have a stress test performed at various intervals to test the strength of your heart and may ask you to see a physical therapist for advice. However, starting and sticking with an exercise plan will definitely increase your mobility, improve your cardiovascular health, and raise your general sense of self-esteem and confidence over the long term.
Q. I love to play tennis, and it's about the only exercise I get on a regular basis. But whenever I do a backhand down the line, I seem to wrench my elbow. My doctor says it's tennis elbow. Is that the same thing as arthritis? Is there anything I can do about it?
A. Ask a trained sports therapist to work with you to help identify your problem. It could be related to arthritis or it could be a sports injury. The root of the problem might be your form: You may be hitting the ball improperly, thereby straining your muscles. Or you might need to strengthen your shoulder and wrist muscles through weight training or other exercises before they are strong enough to properly execute the stroke.
Releasing Pain through Relaxation
Q. I have a high-pressured job as a salesperson at a department store and typically work 12 to 14 hours a day. I know I need to relieve some stress. Ever since I started this job my gout, which used to come and go only infrequently and mildly, has been attacking more often and more severely. But it seems that every time I try to relax, I only end up getting more tense. How do I resolve this frustrating dilemma?
A. Take a look at the way you're trying to relax. Although we tend to relate inactivity with relaxation, many people find that activities that stimulate their minds and/or bodies—such as exercising or working at a hobby—are more helpful in relieving stress than sedentary, passive activities like watching television or trying to force yourself to nap.
At the same time, it is important for your general health, as well as for the health of your joints, to try to slow down and quiet your mind on a regular basis. A meditation technique like visualization, which does engage the imagination, may be one way for you to both relax and get in closer touch with what makes you such a driven and tense person in the first place.
You should also take a look at the physical demands on your joints that your job makes. Standing all day long greeting customers may be placing a great deal of strain on your ankles and knees, just the joints that your gout is most likely to attack. That's not to say you should switch careers, but you may want to make some adjustments, especially during a flare-up.
Is there some way you could sit down for a bit, say, approximately ten minutes every hour? Talk to your practitioner and then your boss to see how you can avoid situations that drain your energy and sap your health.
Q. Every night after I get home from work, I spend five or ten minutes writing down everything that I have to do the next day and all the things that are bothering me. I think it helps me relax, but my wife claims that it only makes my problems seem more important than they are. Who's right?
A. More than likely, you are. A study at Pennsylvania State University showed that people were able to reduce their anxiety levels by setting aside a "worry period" every day. If they started to fret about their problems or future tasks at other times in the day, they forced themselves to postpone it until that period. The organization such a system provided gave the subjects a feeling of control that calmed them down. I'd say you were on the right track.
Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine
Q. I'm deadly afraid of needles, but I'm ready to try anything that might help relieve my arthritis pain. My brother goes to a traditional Chinese doctor whom he trusts. Should I put my fears aside and go, too?
A. Before you decide upon acupuncture, talk to the Chinese health care practitioner about your anxiety over needles. There are other options within Chinese medicine, including acupressure, massage, herbal treatments, and dietary measures, that you might want to consider.
Q. I have been to an acupuncturist who used a lot of needles, and left them in for a long time. My friend went to another acupuncturist who used very few needles, and just stuck them in and out. What is the difference?
A. There are several different systems of acupuncture being practiced in the United States, depending on the acupuncturist's training. Chinese style, as you experienced, tends to use several needles which are retained. Japanese style uses a more gentle stimulation and fewer needles, and French style, favored by many physician-acupuncturists, is somewhere in between. English Five Element style tends to focus on the relationship of emotions to the symptoms, while some others tend to address specific physical symptoms. It is best to discuss the system with the acupuncturist prior to or at the first appointment.
Q. I would try acupuncture, but I'm worried about AIDS. Are acupuncture needles risky?
A. In this era of AIDS awareness, it is highly likely that your acupuncturist is using disposable, single-use acupuncture needles. In addition, all licensed acupuncturists are required to take clean-needle training as part of their examination for licensure. Even so, it is important to ask your prospective acupuncturist if he or she uses disposable needles.
Q. Ayurvedic medicine seems very elaborate and multilayered. How much do I have to understand before I can start to heal my arthritis, relieve my pain, and help to bring my body back into balance before I do further damage?
A. Learning about your body from an Ayurvedic perspective is a process, one that may take many years, indeed a lifetime, to go through. An Ayurvedic practitioner will guide you through that process while providing you with practical information about proper diet, exercise, herbal medicine, and meditation techniques. If you follow this advice, you should see positive change in the state of your health relatively quickly, probably within a period of several weeks, depending on your condition.
Q. I don't have a lot of time during the day to both exercise and meditate. Can I do both at the same time with yoga?
A. Yes. Yoga is used as both a form of exercise and a method of attaining a higher state of consciousness through proper breathing and meditation. The beauty of yoga exercise lies in its ability to bring the body into balance through quiet, powerful stretching and bring the spirit into a more relaxed state through focused breathing and, sometimes, creative visualization.
Chiropractic and Osteopathy
Q. Can spinal manipulation, with all of the cracking and pressing it involves, end up hurting rather than healing joints?
A. When performed by a trained professional, spinal manipulation will not damage the joints or muscles. In fact, the idea is to bring your spine and other joints back into proper alignment and thus relieve aches and pains that occur when your body is out of position. And keep in mind that the cracking and popping you hear occur when gases are released from inside the joints when they are moved. This is a harmless, toxin-releasing process.
Q. I've been seeing a chiropractor to help relieve the pain in my shoulders and elbows thought to be caused by arthritis. Recently, my medical doctor told me that my blood pressure, which had been on the high side, is now normal. Could there be a connection?
A. Absolutely. Depending on where on the spine your chiropractor is working to alleviate your symptoms, therapy may be helping to reduce your blood pressure in one of two ways. If your chiropractor is concentrating on your neck area, it's likely that he or she is helping to balance the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems on the function of the heart and blood vessels. The midback area, on the other hand, is connected to kidney function; it is likely that your kidneys are producing more urine or the adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys, are producing a hormone that helps to lower blood pressure.
Q. What kind of training does a chiropractor usually have?
A. To be certified as a chiropractor, an individual studies at a chiropractic college for a minimum of four years. Training includes all of the basic science and diagnostic skills taught to a medical student, but does not involve surgical or pharmaceutical study. Some chiropractors also learn the fundamentals of nutrition.
Healing Touch: Bodywork and Massage
Q. After an unpleasant experience with Rolfing, which I found too painful, I've been hesitant to try other bodywork techniques. At the same time, I know that my posture is out of kilter, which is part of the reason I suffer from so much pain in my hips and knees. Is there another program that might help me?
A. Although Rolfing can be quite effective, it is not a painless method of manipulating the spine and joints. Many people with arthritis enjoy the slow, controlled, and gentle changes in posture that result from practicing the Alexander technique. Reread the section on this bodywork method in Chapter 10 and explore the resource section on page 168 for more information.
Q. Much to my surprise, my arthritis in my elbows, wrists, and fingers was greatly relieved by a massage therapist who concentrated, not on my arms, but on my feet. What's the connection?
A. It sounds as if your therapist is familiar with the concept of "reflexology," a form of massage in which the rest of the body is "projected" onto the foot. Remember, your body works as a unit, and whenever one part of it is injured, another part may well be affected. By massaging your feet, your therapist is helping to heal injured tissue in your feet that may have been referring pain to your arms for years.
The Power of Herbs
Q. I'm interested in treating my arthritis with herbs. But I also take medication for an ulcer. Can herbs interfere with the drugs I'm taking?
A. Herbs are drugs, and yes, if your physician and herbalist do not work together—or are at least aware of how each is treating you—you could run into some problems with the effectiveness of your treatment plan. It's up to you to supply all the people who treat you with a list of any and all medications and remedies you are taking.
Q. Is aromatherapy only used for relaxation or do the herbs from which oils are derived have physical effects as well?
A. First of all, it's important to realize that relaxation is physical. Remember, more and more evidence is surfacing every day that emotion, and thus the effects of emotion, are present in every cell of the body, including those of our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bone. Second, there is some evidence that therapeutic particles of the original plants enter the body through the nasal passages and the skin and work internally the same way as a dose of herbal medicine by mouth would work.
Q. I'm allergic to penicillin and a variety of antibiotics. Could I be allergic to herbal remedies as well?
A. Absolutely, and you must be sure to inform your herbalist of any and all allergies and sensitivities to drugs and other substances you may have. This information will help him or her provide you with a safe, effective herbal remedy.
Like Cures Like: Homeopathy
Q. I visited a homeopath for the first time last week. After asking me lots of questions about my diet and other health problems, he decided to treat my arthritis with <
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