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Musculoskeletal - Arthritis

by Paul Bergner Medical Herbalist

Medical Herbalism 1(1):8,11

Modern medicine has not identified a cause or a cure for arthritis. Modern treatments include symptomatic treatment of pain and inflammation, intervention with strong toxic drugs to alter the course of the disease, and surgical treatment of joint damage. Arthritis is truly a dreaded diagnosis in our culture, indicating a life of pain, progressive crippling, drugs and surgery. Other medical systems are not so pessimistic about the treatment of arthritis. Naturopathic, Homeopathic, Chinese, ayurvedic, Arabic (Unani) and various traditional medical systems all have treatments if not cures for arthritis. Likewise the Greeks, Romans, and the outstanding physicians and traditional healers of Europe all had treatments for arthritis. Most interesting is that many of these have had precisely the same understanding of the cause and treatment of arthritis. Although modern conventional medicine claims a monopoly on “scientific medicine” it has to be acknowledged that identical clinical observations and conclusions made in widely different geographical locations, cultures and times also have some scientific basis. Arthritis is caused, in the words of the greek Physician Hippocrates, by “too much food.” Naturopathic physicians attribute it to a buildup of toxins in the body. Ayurvedic doctors say the same, but call these toxins “ama.” The word “rheumatism” itself comes from an old word for mucus; it was thought that rheumatism was caused deranged mucus secretions in the body. Chinese medicine also calls arthritis a disease of excess. Sixteenth century physician Paracelsus classified arthritis along with gout, sciatica, migraine headache, gall stones and kidney stones as “tartaric diseases”," named after sediment that falls out of wine. He held that excess wastes in the body settled into various tissues, causing these diseases. The general progression of such diseases is this: first either too much food or an improper diet leads to impaired digestion; the undigested or partially digested materials eventually are too much of a burden for the eliminative organs; the body then begins to deposit the material in the various tissues of the body. This may cause disease directly, or the body may then react to the compromised tissues causing inflammation. If the target tissue is a joint, we call the result arthritis. The “sediment” might also attack the nervous system or other soft tissues, causing allergic reactions, migraine headache, or other diseases. The above pathology immediately suggests a treatment to get at the cause of the inflammation: strengthen the organs of elimination and digestion and balance the nutrition. This is in fact the treatment approach used by most physicians in the medical disciplines named above. Nutrition and revitalization is more important during the remission stage of the disease, and elimination more important during exacerbation. Traditionally, other medical systems have employed fasting, the use of purgatives and diuretics, and the induction of vomiting or sweating for eliminative treatments. It becomes immediately apparent why modern Western medicine does not know how to treat arthritis. Western medicine is preoccupied with fighting germs or suppressing bodily reactions to disease; the correct treatment for arthritis requires tonifying and building up whole body systems, something which modern medicine does not know how to do. Other medical systems, including medical herbalism, excel in such treatments. Treatment also requires some knowledge of the use of food as medicine; most MD’s in the U.S. have never had a even a single course in therapeutic nutrition. Herbs are used in the treatment of arthritis in two ways: to treat chronic pain, and to treat the cause of arthritis. I will discuss treatments for the cause, and present a case where herbal treatment for pain is used. It is difficult to give scientific evidence of the efficacy of herbal use in this condition because of the constantly remitting character of the disease. An improvement that appears to be due to a particular treatment may only be due to natural fluctuation of the disease. Furthermore, scientific tests are usually concerned with single controllable agents rather than complicated protocols; as will be evident below, the herbal treatment of arthritis is not so simple or controllable. Clinicians throughout the ages have used botanical medicines successfully, however, according to the following rules.
Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner    253


    Medical Herbalism: Clinical Articles and Case Studies

Rules for using herbs:

1. Don’t expect miracle cures. Arthritis is a deep rooted disorder, having components in the emotional and mental bodies. What provides a dramatic cure for one patient may be ineffective for another.

 2. Don’t rely on herbs alone. There is no magic bullet for arthritis. The diet and lifestyle must be modified for the condition to change. Moreover the patient may require other natural therapies such as hydrotherapy, homeopathy, or emotional work. Arthritis patients should be working with a physician who employs natural methods.

3. Expect to use treatments for a long time. Expect initial results only after a month to six weeks, and don’t expect more permanent results without much longer treatment.

 4. Don’t rely on the power of the herb, but use herbs to gently strengthen the body’s own eliminative and blood building system. See the discussion of alterative herbs below.

5. Don’t heavily purge a weak patient. This follows from the above. An arthritis patient’s eliminative organs are already weakened. Strong stimulation of them may cause injury, and can potentially drive the disease deeper into the system.

6. Change herb formulas periodically, and take regular breaks from treatment. Individual herbs may slowly lose their effect as the body becomes accustomed to their regular use.

7. Pay attention to the quality of herbal medicines. Get good quality from reputable company. Plant material or preparation should usually have the distinct fragrance, taste and color of the original plant. Some clinical trials of anti-arthritic herbs have failed because inferior products were used.

The chief herbs used in the treatment of arthritis are Alteratives, Mild Diuretics, Laxatives, and Nutritive herbs. Alteratives are tonic herbs which act through various mechanisms to restore a normal balance to the system. They usually tonify the eliminative organs which in turn purify the blood and lymph. Alteratives also act directly on the cell level to restore balance. Three excellent alteratives for long term use in arthritis are Dandelion (Taraxacum off.) Nettle (Urtica dioica) and Burdock (Arctium lappa). Dandelion also has diuretic properties while providing generous amounts of potassium. Nettle is also diuretic, and increases the excretion of uric acid. Nettle is also highly nutritive. Alteratives should be taken for at least six weeks. Mild diuretics are used mainly to encourage flushing of the whole system. Note that increasing the fluid intake will have the same effect. Juniper (Juniperus communis) is especially good for use in arthritis as it also has bitter principles which tonify the digestive system. Juniper should not be used with any kind of kidney disease or during pregnancy. It should not be used for more than 6 weeks. Laxatives should be used conservatively. Note that increasing the fiber in the diet will have the same effect as using a mild laxative. Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana) and Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula) might be used if there is chronic constipation during exacerbation of arthritis. These act without causing laxative dependence. Nutritive herbs are crucial to the herbal treatment of arthritis. The theme of natural treatment for arthritis should be to “nourish, build and tonify”, rather than to “purge, punish and purify.” Nettle (Urtica dioica) is highly indicated for arthritis, because it shares nutritive, alterative, and diuretic qualities. Another excellent nutritive herb with mild diuretic properties is Alfalfa. Two possible arthritis formulas might be as follows: equal parts of an alterative herb, a mild diuretic, a laxative, and a carminative (a heating herb, such as ginger or fennel, to balance the effects of the laxative); equal parts of an anti-inflammatory herb and an alterative herb. This is sufficient if the patients has eating and drinking habits that encourage good elimination.
Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner    254


    Medical Herbalism: Clinical Articles and Case Studies    
Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner    255