Natural treatment for rheumatoid arthritis
by Nathan Wei, MD, FACP, FACR
Nathan Wei is a nationally known board-certified rheumatologist and author of the Second Opinion Arthritis Treatment Kit. It's available exclusively at this website... not available in stores.
Click here: Second Opinion Arthritis Treatment Kit
There are many natural therapies that have been used for rheumatoid arthritis. Sometimes these are referred to as “natural” therapies.
Here is a rundown on some of them. Much of this material comes from the Arthritis Foundation and is legitimate information.
Acupuncture is the use of fine needles inserted into the skin at precise points. It originated in China thousands of years ago, and is based on the theory that an essential life energy called qi flows through the body along invisible channels, called meridians. When the flow of qi is blocked or out of balance, illness or pain results. Stimulation of specific points along the meridians can correct the flow of qi to restore or optimize health, or to block pain, according to Chinese theory.
The "acupoints" can also be stimulated with heated herbs (called moxibustion), magnets, mild electrical current (electroacupuncture), manual pressure (acupressure), low-frequency lasers, or even bee stings. A traditional Chinese medicine practitioner may also offer herbs along with lifestyle advice.
People still don't know exactly how acupuncture works. However, some acupoints correspond to areas, called trigger points, that are known to be rich in nerve endings, and studies show stimulating acupoints causes multiple biologic responses. Such stimulation can prompt a cascade of chemicals in the muscles, spinal cord and brain that releases the body's natural pain-killing endorphins, and can also affect circulation and other bodily systems.
Acupuncture has been described in thousands of writings throughout the centuries. Among the many recent studies are several that show it relieves osteoarthritis symptoms – so well in one Scandinavian study that 25 percent of patients previously scheduled for knee surgery canceled their plans. That same study showed booster treatments once a month sustained the pain relief.
Other studies have shown that acupuncture helps relieve pain from fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis; can decrease the number and severity of Raynaud's phenomenon attacks; helps ease conditions that can accompany arthritis such as depression and irritable bowel syndrome; and enhance conventional treatments for gout, when used in a combined therapy.
However, a 1997 meta-analysis of 17 studies that looked at acupuncture in inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, spondylarthropathy, lupus and local and progressive systemic scleroderma found the studies failed to show the effectiveness of acupuncture for these conditions.
Furthermore, many studies are not published in English and few acupuncture studies meet rigorous scientific standards. A 1999 analysis of studies that looked at acupuncture for fibromyalgia, for example, found seven that suggested it relieves pain, reduces morning stiffness and may improve sleep, but only one of those studies was considered to meet high scientific standards.
There's enough research to suggest acupuncture relieves pain for some, and that it is safe when performed by a trained professional using sterile or disposable needles.
Acupuncture appears to work best on fibromyalgia and soft-tissue pain, and to be least effective for rheumatoid arthritis or other systemic inflammatory conditions, doctors say. Relief is often temporary, and treatments can be time-consuming and expensive.
Acupuncture may not be covered by your insurance, even if it's given by a medical doctor. Costs vary across the country, but generally a first visit runs $75 to $150, with follow-up visits between $35 and $75.
Acupuncture's effects may go beyond temporary pain relief. Acupuncture is a stimulus that can help repattern the body and help break the chronic pain syndrome. It can also stimulate circulation and people can be taught acupressure massage to help themselves.
One thing experts concur on is that acupuncture won't cure arthritis. Acupuncture doesn't replace conventional medicine but it adds another dimension beyond what we have now.
Acupuncture is generally safe, but as with any therapy – conventional or alternative – you should observe some precautions.
• Choose a therapist who is licensed and/or a graduate of a respected school of acupuncture, and who is willing to work with your doctor. Some 10,000 acupuncturists currently practice in the United States and most are regulated by the state in which they reside. About 4,000 doctors have completed a recognized acupuncture training program
• Get a diagnosis from a medical doctor before undergoing acupuncture, to make sure you don't have a condition requiring prompt medical attention.
• Don't stop your medications without consulting your doctor. Acupuncture works with, not instead of, conventional medicine.
• Tell the acupuncturist about all health conditions, including pregnancy; and list all medications (including herbs and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that could cause you to bleed, for example).
• Be sure the acupuncturist uses sterilized or disposable needles.
• Don't take muscle relaxants, tranquilizers or painkillers right before acupuncture, as acupuncture may intensify the effects of these drugs.
• Tell the practitioner right away if you experience pain or bleeding. Acupuncture shouldn't hurt after the initial sting of the needle's insertion; you should not bleed more than a few drops.
• Don't automatically take herbs offered by traditional Chinese practitioners. They could interact with prescription drugs.
• Keep notes about your response to the treatment, and tell your doctor and acupuncturist about any changes.
• Track your progress. If you have no response at all after four to six sessions, this therapy may not work for you. Or you may want to try another therapist, because, as in any therapy, skill levels vary.
Another form of alternative medicine is Ayurvedic herbs. For thousands of years they have been used in Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, to treat arthritis and other ailments. Sometimes, they are combined with ashwagandha, another Indian herb.
Data presented at the American College of Rheumatology meetings three years ago looked at 182 patients with active rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Those who took the herbs experienced a reduction in the number and severity of swollen joints and noted a statistically significant improvement in pain, stiffness and function compared to those taking placebo. Tests also showed disease-modifying activity such as a drop in the amount of both rheumatoid factor and interleukins, the biological markers that show RA disease activity.
In both studies, participants had no significant side effects or interactions with other drugs, even those taken over a four-year period.
Western experts also have a problem with the multi-herb formula. When so many ingredients are used, it's hard to scientifically evaluate a remedy to determine which one (or ones) are the active ingredients, or even how they act together.
For Ayurvedic practitioners, these studies confirm tradition. While these herbs are often used in combination, each has its own history of study and/or therapeutic use.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) may be among the best-studied of the four. Research suggests ginger root inhibits production of prostaglandins and leukotrienes, which are involved in pain and inflammation. In an uncontrolled 1992 Danish study, 56 patients who had either RA, OA or muscular discomfort took powdered ginger. All of those with musculoskeletal pain and three-fourths of those with OA or RA reported varying degrees of pain relief and no side effects, even among those who took the ginger for more than two years.
Turmeric (Curcumin longa) is used lavishly for color and flavor in Indian cuisine. Studies show it inhibits prostaglandin production and stimulates the creation of cortisol, which relieves inflammation. It seems to act like capsaicin, an active ingredient in cayenne pepper, by depleting nerve endings of the neurotransmitter substance P. When turmeric was taken internally along with cayenne pepper in an animal study, it significantly lowered inflammation. Capsaicin is usually used in ointments that are applied externally to aching joints. One researcher suggests turmeric might also work applied externally, but there are no studies to show this.
Frankincense, also known as boswellia (Boswellia serrata), comes from a tree that yields gum when its bark is peeled away. In animal and test tube studies, it inhibited the production of leukotrienes, which cause inflammation.
Ashwagandha (Withania somniferum) is an Asian plant of the potato family. Its roots have long been used to treat "rheumatism," high blood pressure, immune dysfunctions, erection problems and also to ease inflammation. Because of all this, it's sometimes called the "Indian ginseng."
Although each herb may have some action on its own, Ayurvedic medicine traditionally combines herbs for greater effect. A 1991 study conducted in India looked at another combination formula - of Boswellia, ashwagandha, turmeric and zinc. In a double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial of 42 patients with OA, those receiving the test formula showed a significant drop in pain and disability. Moreover, the combination appeared to only affect the symptoms: X-rays didn't show any changes in the joints of the test group. Again, there were no significant side effects.
While researchers report that the herbs require up to a month to take effect, they say they retain their therapeutic punch over several years without a need to increase the dosage.
And don't look to herbs to fully solve your health problems. Treating and preventing disease requires daily healthy living that includes rest, relaxation, exercise and a well-balanced diet.
If you are thinking of using these herbs, keep this advice in mind:
• Make sure you have an accurate diagnosis. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis and related conditions.
• As always, before you take botanicals or other supplements, be sure to tell your doctor what you are taking and how much so you can be monitored for any side effects or changes.
• Don't discontinue any prescription drugs - especially glucocorticoids - without first consulting your doctor. It can be dangerous to suddenly stop some medications.
• Remember that these botanicals act as chemicals in the body: Anything powerful enough to help can also hurt. Botanicals may also interact with prescription and other drugs. For example, ashwagandha in very large doses may increase the effects of barbiturates.
• Follow directions on the package or from a health professional trained in herbal or Ayurvedic therapy. More is not better, and large doses can cause problems.
• Use ginger with care if you are taking blood pressure or blood thinning medication, as large doses can multiply the effects of these drugs and cause bleeding. For the same reason, don't use large amounts of ginger if you are scheduled for surgery or dental work.
• After about two or three months, check in with your doctor, as you would when taking any medication long-term.
• Keep up with your full treatment plan. Be sure to exercise, get appropriate rest, practice joint protection, keep your weight down and your spirits up.
Homeopathy is among the most popular alternative therapies in the United States, and even more popular in Europe and Canada where such "remedies" can be found side-by-side with conventional drugs in many pharmacies. It’s used worldwide not only by homeopaths, but by some medical doctors as well as naturopaths, chiropractors, herbalists, midwives and sometimes even veterinarians.
While much of homeopathy’s appeal is based on hearsay and anecdotes, nevertheless, a number of studies have shown homeopathic remedies are effective for some conditions. Most doctors write that off to placebo effect – the curious but real phenomenon in which a person’s belief that a substance will make him feel better actually does make him feel better. But there may be more to homeopathy than the placebo effect can explain: Some of the studies were performed on animals and in test tubes, yet still showed positive effects.
The basic premise isn’t so strange: Homeopathy is based on the idea that "like cures like," that diluted amounts of a poison or other disease-causing substance can relieve the same symptoms that the larger dose causes. That concept resembles the desensitizing therapy used to relieve allergy symptoms, or vaccination, in which we are given a mild case of the disease to put our immune system on guard.
But the most confounding homeopathic belief of all is that the weaker the dose, the stronger the body’s response. In fact, some of the "most potent" remedies are so diluted that not a single molecule of the original material remains in the solution or tablet.
No one can explain how it works – or how it could work. One homeopathic theory is that the molecules of the remedy substance leave an energy "memory" as they disappear, somewhat like a shadow, and that the body responds to it.
Homeopathy is a healing system developed in the 18th century by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann. Looking for a mild therapy that could stimulate the "vital energy" to restore and maintain health, he believed the substances that cause disease could, when administered in tiny amounts, provoke a healing response.
Over decades, Hahnemann built a pharmacy of thousands of "remedies" derived from natural substances such as herbs, minerals and animal products. Homeopathy quickly built a great popular appeal: By the mid 1800s, thousands of homeopathic doctors, hospitals, pharmacies and medical schools appeared worldwide.
Homeopathy faded from popularity in the United States in the 1940s with the advent of antibiotics and other effective pharmaceuticals. Today, increased interest in alternative therapies has led to a revival. Now homeopathic remedies are sold at health food and drugstores in the form of tinctures, creams, and most often as tiny tablets that dissolve under the tongue. Today’s homeopaths often use a computer to keep track of the many remedies.
Homeopathy is an individualized therapy: A practitioner takes a detailed history of your health, lifestyle, preferences and symptoms and categorizes your "constitutional type." The homeopath then carefully matches this information to a vast data bank of remedies.
Among the most common homeopathic preparations is arnica, used for bruises and injuries. Some common remedies for arthritis pain are Rhus toxicodendron (from poison ivy) Bryonia (wild hops), Apis (from bee venom) and Ledum (from marsh tea). A homeopathic remedy for gout is Colchicum autumnal, the herb from which a prescription drug for gout is made.
In so-called "classical homeopathy," the practitioner seeks a single remedy that’s the perfect fit for an individual and his situation, and then prescribes one remedy at a time. If that remedy doesn’t work on all the symptoms, the practitioner may substitute – or add – another remedy.
Many more people self-treat, especially for minor ailments such as muscle aches, a cold or an earache. There are many books on homeopathy that match symptoms to remedies, and remedies are usually labeled with their therapeutic uses. Anyone can buy the substances off-the-shelf in health food stores, pharmacies and even grocery stores. And homeopathic remedies are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as over-the-counter drugs, unlike herbs and dietary supplements which have not received FDA approval as medications.
Practitioners say symptoms sometimes worsen briefly before they begin to get better. Acute ailments such as the flu or a stomach upset may clear up with one dose in a few hours or days. Chronic conditions such as arthritis may take several months of treatments.
Some claim these remedies may slow or stop the progression of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or osteoarthritis (OA). But scientific evidence doesn’t prove that.
Overall, the evidence for the benefit of homeopathy in arthritis is poor when evaluated critically.
Homeopaths also believe substances such as coffee or prescription drugs may counteract the remedies. But no conscientious homeopath takes patients off prescription drugs abruptly or asks them to stop medications if they have a systemic type of arthritis such as lupus or RA.
There’s still not enough evidence homeopathy helps any arthritis symptoms.
Homeopathic remedies can be found in many pharmacies and health food stores.
According to doctors we interviewed and the National Center for Homeopathy, fees for treatment range from $100 to $400 for the first consultation and then from $50 to $100 for follow-up visits. Remedies range from $5 to $15, and sometimes are used in one dose. The consultations may be covered by your insurance if the homeopath is also a medical doctor or osteopath.
• Get a diagnosis from a medical doctor if you have – or even suspect you have – arthritis. There are more than 100 different types, and your diagnosis will determine the proper treatment.
• Don’t try to treat yourself if you have a systemic rheumatic disease such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. And don’t expect homeopathy alone to be enough. Consult your regular medical doctor as well.
• Don’t give up your prescription medications without your doctor’s OK. It can be dangerous to stop some drugs abruptly.
• Look for a homeopath with years of experience, certification from a national homeopathic organization and, preferably, medical training.
• Use only products labeled with the words "produced in accord with the U.S. Pharmacopoeia Convention" to be sure you are getting a pure homeopathic product, not one mixed with drugs or other substances.
• Read the labels if you have alcohol concerns: Some remedies are diluted with alcohol.• Take only one remedy at a time, and keep detailed notes about what you take and any effects you feel. This will help you determine if it appears to help your symptoms or track any adverse effects.
• Don’t continue a therapy that isn’t working: Homeopaths say remedies show effects for minor ailments in a few days. For a chronic disease such as arthritis, it may take up to two months. If you don’t improve after that period, it’s probably not the right remedy – or homeopathy may not be the right treatment.
• Remember, more is not better: The whole philosophy of homeopathy is small doses. Take the remedies as directed, in tiny amounts.
• Side effects are rare, as homeopathic remedies have little (if any) active ingredients. However, if you develop new symptoms, stop taking the remedy right away and consult your doctor and a homeopath.
The right kind of oils inside your body could help with aches and pains.
Out of all the choices, four oils rise to the top. There’s strong evidence that fish oil supplements with omega-3 fatty acids can ease rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms, help prevent Raynaud’s syndrome spasms and possibly relieve some lupus symptoms. Both borage seed and evening primrose seed oils have been shown to ease RA inflammation, and flaxseed oil may be also helpful. Readily available, these oils appear not to have serious side effects when taken as directed.
Though these oils aren’t mainstream medical treatment, some people have been using them for a decade or more, often along with conventional medications.
Oil supplements are not a cure and, at best, appear to give relief similar to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – though without risky side effects. Many people with RA and similar diseases need to take disease modifying drugs for maximum protection from joint destruction, using NSAIDs or perhaps these oils as a supplemental treatment.
Moreover, rheumatic diseases have flares and remissions, so any reduction in symptoms has to be carefully examined for cause and effect. Although oil supplements don’t cost more than most prescription medications – fish oil and flaxseed cost about $30 a month, evening primrose oil $100 or so – they are not covered by insurance.
Supplements aren’t the whole story on oils. The best advice? Take some supplements, but also lower your overall fat intake, change some of the oils you eat and add oil-rich cold water fish to your diet at least twice a week. Here’s why.
It’s known that saturated fats from animal products contribute to many diseases. Now researchers believe the balance of polyunsaturated fats in Western diets is out of whack and may be contributing to an increase in inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. They say we consume too many of the fats that promote inflammation and not enough of the fats that produce the chemicals to counter it.
Our diets are overwhelmed by the omega-6 fatty acids called linoleic acid, the type that’s in most vegetable and cooking oils and is the primary oil used in processed and fast foods. In our bodies, some of this fat breaks down into arachidonic acid that fuels the agents that contribute to inflammation.
Meanwhile, we are probably getting too little of the fatty acids – omega 3s and others – that help reduce inflammation and improve circulation.
To get our fats back in balance, says oil experts, we need to cut down on dietary fats from linoleic acid and increase our consumption of omega 3s and other beneficial fats found in cold water fish, and some plants oils such as flaxseed, olive and canola oils.
Another type of "good" fat, called GLA, or gamma linoleic acid, is found concentrated in borage seed oil and evening primrose seed oil and is not easily found in food.
Here’s an overview of the oil supplements most-used for rheumatoid arthritis and other forms of inflammatory arthritis.
Fish oil is perhaps best known for its heart-saving abilities, but the same qualities help reduce RA and Raynaud’s symptoms. In some studies, those with RA using fish oil were able to significantly reduce their use of NSAIDs, or even discontinue them without increased pain and inflammation. In a study of 32 people with Raynaud’s who took fish oil, researchers found that the oil improved the tolerance to cold exposure among those who had primary but not secondary Raynaud’s.
How it’s used: Fish oil comes as a liquid and in softgel capsules. The usual dose is about three grams, or 3,000 milligrams (mg), total of EPA/DHA (the key ingredient in fish oil) per day. Be sure to check the labels: the capsules may say "1,000 mg of fish oil," but will have varying percentages of EPA and DHA. If they contain 300 mg, you’ll need to take 10 capsules a day. Look for high potency capsules so you don’t have to take so many. A month’s supply costs about $45.
Evening primrose seed oil and borage seed oil also eased RA symptoms in studies – some say better than fish oil in terms of relieving joint tenderness. Evening primrose oil is better known, but borage oil has a higher percentage the beneficial acid GLA. Some folklore recommends rubbing these oils on your aching joints, or on the hands for those with Raynaud’s, but there is no evidence that this helps.
How it’s used: These oils are available as liquids but are most often taken in softgel capsules. The usual dosage for RA is about 1.8 grams (1,800 mg) of GLA a day. Again, check the ingredients on the label and see how much GLA is in each capsule, then do the math. If the capsules have 300 mg of GLA, you will need to take six a day. Evening primrose oil may contain 130 mg of GLA, so you’ll need 14 capsules per day. A month’s supply of borage oil is about $60; evening primrose oil is about $100 a month.
Flaxseed oil is believed by some to help arthritis, but so far there aren’t any good studies that prove this. The belief it may reduce inflammation in RA comes from its composition, and from studies that show it increases levels of the beneficial fatty acid EPA. In a study of healthy men who limited "bad" fats in the diet, researchers found flaxseed oil worked as well as fish oil. It’s also possible flaxseed might help with lupus. In a small study of nine people with lupus nephritis (kidney inflammation), 30 grams of flaxseed a day significantly lowered cholesterol, thinned blood, reduced inflammation and improved kidney function.
How it’s used: Flaxseed is sold as a liquid, whole seeds and a meal or flour for baking. Some sources recommend taking 1 to 3 tablespoons a day of the oil or about 30 grams (one-fourth of a cup) of the meal or flour. You can use the meal or flour, which costs about $1 a pound, in bread, pancake and waffle recipes: One quick-bread recipe uses 2 cups of flaxseed flour with 4 cups of regular flour. It has a nutty flavor and the oil, which costs about $15 for 16 ounces, is used in salad dressings.
These medicinal oils can become rancid after exposure to heat, light and oxygen. To prevent this:
• Read supplement labels carefully. Buy only plant oils that are certified organic (or grown without pesticides); that are packaged in opaque plastic containers; and that have an expiration date. Look for products that have been "expeller-pressed;" expeller pressing means no heat or chemicals were used in the process of squeezing the oil out of the seeds.
• Look for liquid oils displayed in a refrigerated case; store oils and capsules in the refrigerator.
• Remember: The products are not pure GLA or EPA/DHA. Check to see how much of the active ingredients you are getting. Look for high dosage capsules, and be prepared to do some calculations to figure out how many you need to take. If you aren’t sure, ask a pharmacist.
If you decide to try oil supplements, tell your doctor and keep a daily diary to note any changes.
• Fish oil and the GLA oils thin the blood, which means they could increase your risk of bleeding if you are also taking NSAIDs, blood thinning medication, or herbs such as ginger or turmeric that also slow clotting. Although no one has had a bleeding incident in any of the studies, it’s best to be cautious. Check with your doctor.
• If you use the old fish oil standby, cod liver oil, be sure it has been stripped of vitamins A and D: These vitamins are toxic in large doses.
• Allow three months for the oil supplements to take effect. If you don’t see any changes by then, the supplements may not be working for you.
• It’s rare, but some people may get intestinal upsets or gas when they start taking oils. Start with a one-third dosage and increase it gradually to reduce the chances of stomach upsets or gas.
• Fish oil capsules are tasteless, but burping may bring up a fishy taste or odor, so take them right before meals.
• Some people who take high doses of fish oil have reported that their body odor takes on a fishy smell.
Fish that Give Good Fat
• Albacore tuna
The colder the water they live in, the more omega-3 oil in the fish: A half a pound of salmon yields 3 to 4 grams of omega-3 oil. Frozen and canned fish are fine. However, be sure the fish is wild: Farm-raised fish (such as salmon) are fed commercial products resulting in lower omega-3 levels.
Consider changing the balance of oils in your diet to improve your whole health picture. Here’s what some experts suggest.
• Toss the cooking and salad oils in your house except for those high in beneficial fatty acids such as flaxseed, olive and canola oils.
• Cut your meat and other animal product consumption to no more than 4 to 6 ounces per day (about the size of two decks of playing cards).
• Eat cold water fish two or three times a week (see list above).
• Add flaxseed products to your diet. The oil can be used in salad dressings and the flour can be cooked into muffins or pancakes for breakfast.
• Watch your overall fat intake: no more than 30 percent of your daily calories should come from any kind of fat.
Meditation is an ancient practice that has gained modern medical approval in many quarters.
Research shows meditation can help relieve many arthritis symptoms, such as pain, anxiety, stress and depression, as well as ease the fatigue and insomnia associated with fibromyalgia. It affects many body processes connected with well being and relaxation. Recent studies suggest meditation may balance the immune system to help the body resist disease, and even heal.
There is significant data that meditation can enhance healing and improve the quality of your life and may well reduce your medical and psychological symptoms.
It is even being paid for by some cost-conscious insurers because it requires no special equipment or clothing, doesn't involve drugs, surgery or other pricey treatment and, according to some studies, it cuts down on office visits.
Meditation involves using any number of awareness techniques to quiet the mind and relax the body. Concentration practices and mindfulness meditation are perhaps the best known.
Concentration techniques help you quiet your mind by focusing on the silent repetition of a word, a sound, or the feel of your own breathing. Transcendental meditation (TM) uses a holy phrase called a mantra, for example. Thoughts or feelings that arise during meditation are allowed to pass by. When attention wanders, it is brought gently back to the meditation object or field of attention.
Mindfulness meditation (also known as Vipassana meditation) cultivates a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. You start with a one-pointed focus (such as your breath) and then expand the field to include thoughts, emotions and sensations in your body. This approach is taught in many stress reduction programs.
In all kinds of meditation, you sit quietly, allowing internal thoughts and external stimuli to flow by or "just be" without getting caught up in them.
Meditation won't take away your pain. But it can move physical and emotional pain and distress out of the forefront of your focus.
Some meditation experts suggest thinking of your mind as a glass of muddy water. When you shake it up, particles swirl around and cloud the water. But if you let the glass sit for 20 minutes, all of the debris suspended in the water settles, leaving the water clear. In a similar way, sitting in meditation helps quiet the "debris" swirling around your head and leaves you feeling clear and peaceful. Meditation is a way of becoming more awake, more deliberate about what you are doing, and to learn how to respond rather than react to situations in your daily life.
Meditation sounds simple, and it can be under the right circumstances — but it's not always easy. It takes discipline to remain still, physically and mentally, and not react to all of the stimulants in the world, and in your own mind and body. It also takes at least 20 minutes of daily practice, which can be very difficult for most people to squeeze into their busy lives. This repetition and stillness are at the core of meditation and the source of its many benefits.
Meditation has its roots in our earliest religions as a way to attain enlightenment, peace or closeness with God. Prayer is perhaps the oldest and best-known concentration practice in the West.
Long practiced in Asia, meditation became well known in the West in the 1960s when celebrities like the Beatles began studying transcendental meditation with the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh. Around the same time, scientists began to study the seemingly supernatural abilities of Asian monks to control what had been believed to be automatic body functions. These studies confirmed that long-time meditators could indeed affect many autonomous physical functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure and the production of stress chemicals like cortisol.
So far, few of the hundreds of studies on meditation look specifically at arthritis or related conditions.
However, stress is believed to be associated with flares in many kinds of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and fibromyalgia. Many studies have shown meditation can significantly lower stress, chronic pain and anxiety.
There are several studies that show meditation can be effective for fibromyalgia. In a 1993 study of 77 patients with fibromyalgia who participated in a 10-week meditation-based relaxation program, all showed some improvement in global well-being, pain, fatigue and sleep disturbances, and 51 percent had moderate to marked improvement.
Meditation is also effective when combined with other mind-body techniques. A 1998 University of Maryland study of 28 women with fibromyalgia found that an eight-week program of mindfulness meditation — combined with the Chinese movement therapy qi gong and counseling in pain management techniques — resulted in significant improvement in pain threshold, depression, coping and function.
Meditation might also help with psoriatic arthritis. In a randomized, controlled trial of people with psoriasis undergoing ultraviolet light therapy, skin lesions cleared up significantly faster in those given a mindfulness-meditation audio tape to listen to during therapy sessions compared to those who did not meditate.
Other studies suggest meditation may have far-reaching effects.
Scientists now know meditation changes the way our brain works, and shows that thoughts can influence the brain and the body.
Meditation has also been shown to slow heart and breathing rates, lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, and increase alpha brain wave activity. It may also increase the body's production of melatonin, which is needed for healthy sleep (a problem for many with fibromyalgia and chronic pain). And a startling study last spring found twice-daily TM meditation actually reduced fatty buildup in artery walls as effectively as heart medications.
There's also evidence that meditation moderates the immune response. Meditation may affect the nervous and vascular systems, as well as the immune system, which in turn would affect joint function and inflammation.
Other forms of alternative medicine such as Chinese herbs, hypnosis, bee stings, etc. are described elsewhere on this website and also in my book, How You Beat Arthritis Just As I Did? You can order it on CD at http://www.aocm.org
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