Facing up to Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting over 75 per cent of the over-65 age group. The joints most frequently affected are those of the hips, spine, knees and hands. It usually affects just one or two joints, but it can be more widespread. Osteoarthritis is associated with wear and tear on the joints and tends to become worse with age. Herbal remedies can help to slow this progression, as well as soothe symptoms.

Anti-inflammatory action

The term arthritis means inflammation of a joint, and so herbs with anti-inflammatory effects are central to any treatment strategy. Herbs such as nettle or meadowsweet will encourage removal of toxins and damaged tissues from the joints, as well as ease discomfort by reducing swelling, redness and pressure inside the joints. This will help to 'clean' them and slow further deterioration.

Anti-inflammatory herbs often work better when combined with appropriate 'alternative' herbs that stimulate toxin clearance. Celery seed is very effective at removing any build-up of toxins and inflammatory substances from joints. It is best used with other herbs that will ensure the optimal functioning of the kidneys and liver, so that the substances pulled out from the joints are completely removed from the body. Parsley or dandelion leaf tonics are good for the kidneys, while dandelion root or yellow dock can be used for the liver.

Pain relievers

When arthritis is severe, herbal painkillers may be needed. For pain that's worst at night and prevents sleep, try valerian. Where pain is severe and associated with redness or swelling of a joint, try black cohosh. For constant mild pain or discomfort, chamomile is often the most appropriate remedy. For particularly severe pain or pain associated with a trapped nerve, you should consult a professional medical herbalist, who may use a more powerful herb, such as yellow jasmine that's not on general sale.

Circulation boosters

Anti-inflammatory herbs need to be combined with circulatory tonics to ensure good blood circulation to the joints. Internally, herbs such as ginger and prickly ash are used to stimulate the supply of nutrients to the joints via the blood supply. Externally, herbs such as cayenne or mustard are used in rubs or oils to draw blood to the joints. Some people even use fresh nettles externally, as they find the stimulating action of the stings brings relief - but this is not recommended for the less hardy...

Rubs and ointments

External rubs, ointments and poultices will soothe stiff, aching joints at the end of the day. The most effective are based on stimulating herbs such as cayenne, black pepper or mustard, but also contain anti-inflammatory remedies such as lavender or juniper essential oils, or oil of wintergreen.

Diet matters

Diet and nutrition are now recognized to play an important part in the treatment of osteoarthritis. First, loss of any excess pounds will reduce the pressure on weight-bearing joints. This is best achieved by reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates and fatty foods together with gentle exercise, such as swimming, that does not put pressure on your joints. Secondly, you should avoid foods that promote inflammation, such as red meats, animal fats and coffee, and increase your intake of the foods that oppose inflammation, such as oily fish, nuts, seeds and other sources of essential fatty acids. It may be worth trying a supplement of fish oils, starflower or evening primrose oils to improve your intake of these anti-inflammatory nutrients.

Supplementary benefits

Certain vitamins and minerals also have anti-inflammatory properties and can help to reduce symptoms. In particular, zinc is needed for repair of damaged cartilage and joint membranes, and so its supplementation often helps with osteoarthritis. Selenium, B complex and vitamins C and E are other good choices.

Avoidance tactics

A minority of arthritis sufferers have a sensitivity to vegetables from the Solanaceous family - tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, aubergines and paprika being the main offenders -- and find that their arthritis improves when they avoid these for a trial period of a month or two. Dairy products, vinegars and acidic fruits, especially oranges, are also a common problem, so try to avoid these.

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