WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT ARTHRITIS AND TCM: SYMPTOMS, DIAGNOSES, AND TREATMENTS
Easy Eastern Medicine Remedies
As you get older, you’ve probably started to notice your joints start to creak and ache a little bit more than they used to. Maybe you have a wonky knee that acts up when it’s raining, or your wrist tends to hurt when you’ve been typing all day.
Arthritis is a type of joint disorder where inflamed joints can feel achy, stiff, and downright painful. Arthritis and joint pain are quite common in the US, affecting about 1 in 4 adults according to the CDC.
And if you’re one of those people with arthritis, then you know that western doctors can’t always offer you much help. Generally, most Western medical practitioners try to treat arthritis with painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and physical therapy. Luckily, western medicine isn’t the end-all-be-all of medical traditions. Eastern medicine has been treating arthritis and joint pain for centuries, so it’s a great option for someone looking to work alongside or instead of western treatments.
Arthritis and TCM
In traditional Chinese medicine, arthritis is called Bi syndrome. It’s caused by the external forces of Wind, Cold, and Damp. “Bi” means blockage or obstruction, and Bi syndrome is characterized by blocked-up Qi and blood in the meridians. Meridians allow Qi to travel throughout our body and organs. When they are blocked, our energy and lifeforce can’t reach every inch of our body, eventually causing pain and illness.
It’s also important to know that there are 2 different kinds of arthritis in TCM: cold pattern and heat pattern.
Cold Pattern Arthritis
Cold pattern arthritis shows up in patients as extreme muscle and joint pain that limits movement. In cold weather, cold pattern arthritis gets worse but applying heat like a hot water bottle or heating pad can help ease the symptoms. Some other symptoms of cold pattern arthritis include:
- Loose stools
- Extreme thirst
- Clear urine
- White tongue coating
- Wiry/tight pulse
Heat Pattern Arthritis
On the other hand, heat pattern arthritis symptoms are intense pain with hot, swollen, and inflamed joints. Unlike cold pattern arthritis, you can help ease the pain from heat pattern arthritis by applying cold, like an ice pack or cooling liniment. Some other symptoms of heat pattern arthritis are:
- Excessive thirst
- Red face
- Red tongue with yellow coating
- Rapid pulse
TCM Treatments for Arthritis
When treating Bi syndrome, the goal is to clear out any obstructions along your meridians and boost circulation. In traditional Chinese medicine, there are 2 main treatments for arthritis: herbs and acupuncture. The herbs are meant to restore balance to the whole body, while acupuncture is thought to help with the pain.
Acupuncture for Arthritis
Even if you’re new to TCM and eastern medicine, you probably have heard of acupuncture. It’s an ancient Chinese health practice that is supposed to be able to help boost and regulate the flow of Qi throughout your body. This is done by sticking tiny needles into your skin at certain spots along the meridians or pathways that our Qi travels down. The points that your acupuncturist targets will depend on your unique symptoms and situation.
From the western medicine point of view, acupuncture targets nerves, muscles, and other body tissue. Some medical professionals even think it may even help to release our body’s natural painkiller chemicals, endorphins. It seems like acupuncture might also stimulate blood flow and relax muscles which would also help with arthritis pain.
These days, more and more studies are being done on acupuncture and arthritis. We’re not sure why, but acupuncture helps lower the pain and stiffness associated with arthritis so it’s definitely worth a try. Though none of these studies have been able to find out exactly why and how acupuncture helps with arthritis, they do conclude that it’s a helpful treatment on its own or alongside western medical treatments.
Herbs for Arthritis
Depending on your individual symptoms and disorder, your TCM practitioner may prescribe herbs or a combination of herbs to help treat arthritis. Two of the most popular TCM medicine formulas and herbs to help with arthritis are Ba-Qi and Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F (TwHF).
Ba-Qi is a combination of different medical herbs used in TCM to help treat arthritis of Bi syndrome. It contains:
- Radix Salviae miltiorrhizae (Dan Shen)
- Semen strychni (Ma Qian Zi)
- Radix glycyrrhizae (Gan Cao)
- Radix Codonopsis pilosula (Dang Shen)
- Astragalus membranaceus (Fisch)
- Bunge (Huang qi)
- Notoginseng (San Qi)
- Rhizoma Ligustici chuanxiong (Chuan Xiong)
- Radix Achyranthis bidentata (Huai Niu Xi)
- and Rhizoma Atractylodis macrocephalae (Bai Zhu)
Studies done on this TCM prescription show that it’s got lots of good-for-you vitamins and nutrients that give it strong anti-inflammatory and pain killing properties. A study done on rats showed that rats with arthritis who were treated with Ba-Qi had their swelling and pain levels go down. Researchers didn’t notice any bad side effects on the rats, so hopefully this study will be able to have human participants soon!
Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F (TwHF)
Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F (TwHF) is an ancient Chinese herb that comes from a plant known as the thunder god vine. A recent study done in China compared the effects of TwHF and the most popular prescription drug used to treat arthritis, methotrexate (MTX). One group in the study took just MTX, another took only TwHF, and the third group took a combination of the two.
In the end, the group that had the best results was the third group, which was prescribed both MTX and TwHF. The other two groups had the same results, revealing that MTX was equally as effective as TwHF at treating arthritis. This is an exciting study because it shows just how well eastern medicine and western medicine can work together!
If there’s one thing we can learn from a tricky and painful issue like arthritis, it’s that there’s nothing wrong with bringing together western medicine and eastern medicine. From prescription drugs and herbal remedies to acupuncture and physical therapy, talk to your medical professionals to try finding the perfect combo for you.