According to the Australian bureau of statistics, 3.5 million Australians (15.3%) had arthritis in 2014-15. The prevalence was higher amongst women than men and also increased with age. While most arthritis patients seem to experience relief from joint pain during autumn, the pain appears to be exacerbated in winter and spring. So how can you be pain free this winter?
Any form of -itis refers to inflammation. Arthritis refers to inflammation of the joints and this inflammation may cause your joints to become stiff, painful, swollen and sometimes hot. Over time chronic inflammation can result in damage to your joints.
There are more than 100 different forms of arthritis and related diseases. The most common types include osteoarthritis (deterioration of the cartilage inside your joints) and rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disease in which your body is attacked by bacteria or viruses). Fibromyalgia and gout are also considered to be arthritic conditions. All of them cause pain in some way so generally pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medication will be prescribed. This can be useful in the short term but in the long term not only is it not getting to the root of the problem but it may create problems of its own.
In Chinese medicine disease is considered to be a disharmony in the body caused by external pathogenic factors (wind, cold, damp, heat, dryness or very loosely translated as viruses and bacteria), internal factors (primarily the emotions – anger, fear, worry, sadness, anxiety – and we all know the effect that stress has on our health), and constitutional factors (genetics may predispose us to certain conditions but as epigenetics has shown us we are no longer victims of our genes). Exercise or movement is important in maintaining good health, and a good diet is crucial. Pain of any kind is said to be due to stagnation in the flow of qi and blood in the body so Arthritis is often referred to as Bi-syndrome – Bi meaning blockage or obstruction and the primary factors causing the obstruction are considered to be wind, damp and either cold or heat.
There are essentially 4 types of Bi syndrome in Chinese medicine:
- Feng bi (wind bi) in which pain wanders around your body as if the wind is blowing it around. Have you ever experienced a pain that you just can’t quite locate?
- Shi bi (damp bi) in which dampness slows and hampers your circulation and your joints feel heavy and numb, and the pain, a dull ache, gets worse on humid days.
- Han bi (cold bi) in which the cold chills your circulation and severe pain settles in one or more joints. You may feel worse for cold weather and inactivity and better for warmth.
- Re bi (hot or febrile bi) in which your joints feel hot and inflamed, there is swelling, tenderness and sharp pain. This inflammation is your body’s initial and normal response to tissue damage.
So looking at the various types of bi syndromes it makes sense that they would feel worse in winter and spring the cold and wet seasons and better in autumn, a typically dry season.
While the various types of Bi syndrome are named for the external pathogenic factors that aggravate the condition, and therefore how you feel physically, it is interesting to note that not everyone is affected by the wind or the humidity, the heat or the cold in the same way so what else might be going on? According to Dr Christian Northup “Pain of any kind has emotional roots … [and] the emotions associated with arthritis are usually unexpressed anger, resentment, aggression, criticism (of self and others), lack of support, and fear”. This correlates with the fact that in Chinese medicine the organ responsible for the free flow of qi, which results in good circulation, is the liver and the emotion that corresponds with the liver is anger and frustration. Karla McLaren suggests that anger “sets your boundaries by walking the perimeter of your psyche and keeping an eye on you, the people around you, and your environment. If your boundaries are broken (through the insensitivity of others, or in any other way), anger comes forward to restore your sense of strength and separateness”.
However your arthritis manifests there are things you can do to ease your pain.
- Acupuncture and Herbs are a great way to get your circulation flowing better as well as addressing any emotional imbalances that may be contributing to your pain. Knee osteoarthritis, for example, has strong clinical evidence supporting the effectiveness of acupuncture for pain relief.
- Applying heat or cold: If you feel worse for the cold then apply heat to your joints by way of liniments such as red tiger balm, heat packs or try using a tiger warmer to apply warmth to your knuckles and between your toes. You can also warm up from the inside with warming foods (such as ginger and cinnamon) and on the outside by dressing appropriately. If your joints feel hot then cool them down with cooling liniments like white tiger balm and peppermint oil rather than ice packs which will make things worse in the long term as cold slows down your circulation. You can also avoid heating foods such as alcohol and chilli.
- Diet: the Mediterranean diet, which emphasises fish (a key source of omega 3 fatty acids), vegetables, fruits and healthy oils such as olive oil, among other healthy foods reduces inflammation and help lubricate your joints
- Turmeric (related to the ginger family) is used in Chinese medicine to improve blood circulation and thereby ease pain. You can add it to your cooking, make golden milk or take it in tablet form.
- Avoid nightshades: Many people with inflammation find that eliminating these foods (white potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes and capsicum) over a 3 month period can make a huge difference in reducing pain. These foods are high in salicylates and amines which aggravates inflammation. Processed and fast food also tend to aggravate inflammation as well as any food to which you may have allergies such as wheat, gluten or dairy.
- Exercise: Moving your body helps warm you and stimulates your circulation to ward off stiffness and strengthen your muscles. Many people feel better when they are exercising so try to do a series of stretches and gentle exercises every day – try yoga, qi gong or pilates. Exercise is also a great way to keep the weight off and therefore put less stress on your joints. Moving around may give you a rush of feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which can help block pain. Chinese Baoding balls are a great way to maintain flexibility in your fingers.
- Rest and relaxation: when you have a big flare up make time to rest as pain can be exhausting and you need to protect your joints. If pain is affecting your sleep then practise good sleep habits as well as making sure you’re following the tips above. This is also a great time to make an appointment with your local acupuncturist/herbalist.
Your feedback and questions are always welcome so please leave a comment below.
For further information on Chinese Medicine contact Tania Grasseschi (Acupuncture, Chinese Herbs and Wholefood counselling). Tania is a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (AHPRA registered) in Kingsford and is a Contract Academic at the Endeavour College of Natural Health Sydney campus.