Alternative Medicine for Osteoarthritis

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this lesson, you'll learn about osteoarthritis, one of the most common conditions in the world. After reviewing what this disease is, we'll cover different types of alternative medicine available to treat it.

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Lately, you've been feeling kind of achy. Although you used to run track in college, you haven't been able to run in ages. Your joints are stiff and sore, and sometimes they can even be difficult to bend. You decide to go to the doctor, and he suggests you may have osteoarthritis. This condition occurs when the ends of your bones wear away at the joints. Bones are connected with a flexible material called cartilage. Over time, cartilage can wear down, and the bones are left to rub together. This is what creates the pain and inflammation in osteoarthritis.

Although this might sound disturbing, osteoarthritis is incredibly common. It develops slowly over time and has no specific cause, although certain problems do increase the risk for osteoarthritis, like overuse, excessive weight (which puts stress on the joints), and certain genetic factors.

Alternative Medicine

Although there are medications, lifestyle changes, physical therapy options, and even surgery to treat osteoarthritis, there are also forms of alternative medicine that can be used. Alternative medicine treatments are not typically part of a modern, Western treatment plan. Although they are used less by doctors, some people believe that alternative medicine can be helpful to some patients with osteoarthritis.

Acupuncture

Picture walking into a massage room. You lay down on the table while soothing music fills the air. You're not here for massage, though. You can for ancient medicine called acupuncture. Used in China for thousands of years, this technique involves inserting hair thin needles into specific points in the body. The needles are thought to direct energy flow and correct any imbalances that are leading to pain.

Acupuncture involves inserting needles to adjust energy flow
acupuncture

So, does science support this traditional medicine? The results are mixed. Some studies show that acupuncture relieved symptoms and allowed for better movement in patients, while others found there was no effect. Scientists have found that insertion of acupuncture needles does change the way the brain communicates with the body, which can lead to a reduction in pain sensation. It also causes hormones to be released that are beneficial to healing osteoarthritis.

Acupuncture does seem to work for some patients with osteoarthritis. Patients that wish to try this alternative medicine should talk to their doctor for a full recommendation prior to starting any treatment.

Tai Chi

Although the use of acupuncture in osteoarthritis is still unclear, there is research in support of another ancient Chinese art form, tai chi. Tai chi is a type of martial art, in which students flow through poses, channeling their inner energy to improve strength. Tai chi has been shown to have many health benefits, including increased strength, flexibility, and improved mental health. Several studies have shown that a regular tai chi practice also decreases pain and increases joint mobility during osteoarthritis.

Tai chi has been shown to improve osteoarthritis in some studies
Tai chi

Supplements

Some people believe that certain supplements like glucosamine, chondroitin and avocado-soybean unsaponifiables can help with inflammation. Let's look at some of the research for each one.

Glucosamine and Chondroitin

Glucosamine is a structural component of joints. It is found in the lubricating fluid between the bones of the joint and is important for building cartilage. Chondroitin is another component of joints that helps provide cushioning between the bones. Glucosamine can be taken alone, or in combination with chondroitin.

Glucosamine alone, or in combination with chondroitin, has been shown to reduce pain and increase mobility in some studies of patients with osteoarthritis in the knee. However, in other studies, scientists found there was no improvement. Different dosages, different populations, or timing of doses could explain the difference.

Chondroitin on the other hand, has not been shown to have any positive effects on its own in most studies. Some patients claim that these supplements have relieved their pain, but there can be some side effects, particularly for patients taking blood thinners. Any treatment plan should always be discussed with your doctor first.

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