ARTHRITIS AND JOINT HEALTH

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis that affects our joints. This chronic disease causes the cushioning (cartilage) between the bone joints to wear away leading to pain and stiffness. Previously we accepted stiff, painful joints as an inevitable consequence of aging. And, because osteoarthritis was considered unavoidable, medical intervention focused primarily on relieving pain with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and steroid injections. We now understand that the risk and burden of osteoarthritis can be reduced by dietary and other lifestyle changes including all those things that seem to be generally good for one’s health: exercise, weight management, mind-body techniques to reduce mental and muscular tension, and even a few nutritional supplements.

Obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease, also causes osteoarthritis. In fact, though it may appear obvious that weight bearing joints would be damaged by the burden of excess pounds, remarkably not just these joints are more prone to developing arthritis in overweight people. All joints are affected, implying a systemic effect of obesity as well. Fortunately this effect is reversible, and even small amounts of weight loss convey large benefits.

Regular exercise, a great weight loss tool, also independently helps stop development or progression of osteoarthritis. This occurs as a consequence of various physiological changes that follow exercising any joint: joint fluid production is increased, joint strength is enhanced, pain is lessened and overall joint function is improved. Exercise improves the damaged joint by stabilizing and strengthening it. Start with whatever you can do easily and get help if you need it.

When it comes to symptom relief there is more good news. NSAIDs, which can cause stomach irritation, kidney damage, and paradoxically, may also inhibit cartilage repair and accelerate cartilage destruction, need not be the mainstay of your treatment. Studies dating back many years have been touting the benefits of glucosamine sulfate - a natural product found in the human body. Glucosamine sulfate exists in the body to build and maintain cartilage, tendons, and other connective tissues while inhibiting the growth of cartilage-destroying enzymes. Osteoarthritis is the result, in part, of a short supply of glucosamine in our joints, resulting in pain and swelling in the joints, and loss of flexibility in the limbs. The best news is that the benefits of this natural remedy go well beyond symptom relief. Studies have shown that oral supplements of glucosamine sulfate are readily absorbed and can lead to stimulation of healthy new cartilage and other protective molecules.

Glucosamine Sulfate 1500 mg should be taken every day, and may take up to three months to show its full benefits. Chondroitin sulfate also exists naturally in our cartilage and works with glucosamine to promote overall joint health (enteric coating enhances absorption). These are best taken with several other components that have been shown to be important in cartilage synthesis and repair: vitamins E, C, A, B5, and B6, Zinc, and Copper. The omega-3s, DHA and EPA, are yet another helpful adjunct; supplementing omega-3 fats has been shown to diminish inflammation.

Laura Denson Baum, MD