Can supplements help?
Two supplements found in health food stores, glucosamine sulfate and chondroitin sulfate, have received much attention. Animal studies and several small, human studies in Europe and Asia suggest they may slow the breakdown of cartilage and reduce the inflammation of osteoarthritis. Preliminary results of an American study showed relief of moderate-to-severe osteoarthritic knee pain in people who took both supplements together. People with mild pain reported no benefit. Long-term controlled studies on humans have yet to be completed, and there’s some indication that glucosamine raises blood sugar levels—two good reasons to check with your doctor before trying these remedies.
Sniffing out quackery
From copper bracelets to snake venom to gelatin extracts, arthritis sufferers have long been the target of “miracle cures.” But quackery is easy to sniff out. Just look for these clues:
- claims that lotions or creams treat all types of arthritis
- the promise of a cure
- claims based on personal testimonials rather than research
- research based on only one study, several small studies or studies that don’t have control groups
- labels that boast “secret” ingredients or don’t list ingredients
- labels without directions or warnings of side effects
The word arthritis means “joint inflammation.” Sounds simple enough, yet hidden behind so generic a term are more than 100 different diseases. Although the most common causes of arthritis—osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and gout—are distinct conditions, they all involve pain. If arthritis is making it hard for you to tie your shoelaces, button a shirt or otherwise get through the day, try these tips:
- See your doctor promptly. Left untreated, some forms of arthritis, including OA, RA and gout, can be crippling. Prompt diagnosis and proper treatment can prevent joint deformities, relieve pain and improve mobility. Call your doctor if one or more of these symptoms persists for two weeks:
- joint stiffness lasting 30 minutes or longer
- constant or intermittent joint pain or tenderness
- difficulty moving a joint normally
- swelling, redness or warmth in one or more joints.
- Manage your disease. Work with your doctor to plan your treatment. Enroll in self-help classes and contact organizations that offer information, such as the Arthritis Foundation (1-800-568-4045 or www.arthritis.org).
- Bolster your emotional health. Fear, anger and worry can heighten the perception of pain. And sometimes despair can be more debilitating than the arthritis itself. In contrast, friendship, hobbies and an upbeat, independent attitude can distract you from any discomfort. Relaxation techniques, hypnosis and counseling can lift your spirits. And you will benefit from doing as much as possible on your own rather than relying on others.
- Balance rest with exercise. Physical activity can help you look, sleep and feel better. It also releases your body’s natural painkillers and can reduce the fatigue of fibromyalgia. Ask your doctor to suggest exercises that will build muscles around joints and increase range of motion. Many people with arthritis find water exercises soothing.
Exercise must be balanced with joint rest. During flare-ups of gout, RA, systemic lupus erythematosus or psoriatic arthritis, 24-hour complete bed rest may be necessary. When inflammation is mild, two hours of bed rest may be sufficient. Otherwise, your doctor may recommend several 15-minute periods of complete bed rest daily.
- Use heat or cold treatments. Hot compresses, warm baths, heated pools, heating pads and paraffin baths may relax muscles and stimulate circulation. Cold packs, on the other hand, may numb hot, swollen joints during acute attacks. For optimal relief, follow these tips:
- Always place a towel between your skin and the heat or cold source.
- Always remove the heat or cold source after 20 minutes.
- Never apply heat or cold to sore or sensitive skin.
- Never combine analgesic rubs with heat; the combination can burn your skin.
- Ask your doctor about physical and occupational therapies. Therapists trained in the appropriate use of exercises, massage, heat or cold treatments and TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) can provide pain relief and education.
- Ask about special devices. Splints or other devices can stabilize or rest weak or damaged joints in some types of arthritis. Additionally, raised toilets, firm mattresses, straight-backed chairs, easy-to-grip silverware and many other devices can help you maintain your independence.
- Talk to your doctor about medications. Drug treatments vary depending on the underlying cause of arthritis. Acetaminophen can usually reduce the pain of OA. For other types of arthritis, doctors commonly recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium and many others. NSAIDs effectively block pain and swelling but also can cause heartburn, stomach ulcers or bleeding. Analgesic rubs and creams can also bring relief. Like NSAIDs, some block pain. Others stimulate nerve endings to distract the brain from the main source of discomfort.
- Consider nutrition. Diets rich in fish (especially mackerel, salmon and herring), canola oil, tofu and fruits and vegetables (especially green, leafy vegetables) may modestly lessen the inflammation of RA. Consuming more fruits and vegetables may also help you lose unwanted pounds or maintain a healthy weight—a change that will benefit your knees, hips and other weight-bearing joints.
- Ask if surgery is an option. If need be, surgeons can remove debris, realign bones or replace entire joints. Total hip and knee replacements often increase mobility and provide dramatic relief from OA.