It's summer, and for many people that means being outside enjoying our beautiful Montana scenery. Maybe you like to hike, fish or go camping, or your love is to work in the garden growing flowers or vegetables. Maybe you just want to ride your bike with the grandkids and walk the dogs. But then your joints act up - aching knees and hips, sore wrists and elbows, painful shoulders that don't work quite right. Do these problems sound familiar? Probably so. Joint pain is one of the top reasons a person will consult with a doctor. It is not uncommon to experience temporary or minor joint pain from a sprain or strain, but when pain persists, it can interfere with the things you love to do.
Joint pain occurs for several reasons: sprains or strains from injury, normal wear and tear of aging (osteoarthritis), overuse, autoimmune inflammatory (rheumatoid arthritis), muscle imbalances and nutritional deficiencies, to name a few. Some joint pain does not appear to have a clear cause and may be associated with fibromyalgia symptoms, or fatigue. Any sudden onset of joint pain with swelling and fever may indicate a joint infection, and such conditions require immediate evaluation. However, most joint pains are degenerative, or overuse in nature, so let's see what we can do to evaluate and treat these conditions.
The first course of action is usually an X-ray. X-rays are very good at evaluating the presence or absence of degenerative arthritis.
Physical examination will determine if there is a tendonitis, swelling or muscular imbalance. Blood tests can be helpful to see if there are biochemical reasons for chronic joint pain. Chronically low thyroid or low testosterone may contribute to aching joints.
A good history is essential in determining the cause of the joint problem, and based on this, other types of testing may be recommended. Interestingly, food allergies are a not-uncommon aggravating factor in joint problems.
Depending on what we find, balancing the muscles and joints may be a good place to start. The Egoscue Method of postural rebalancing often gives excellent results. Physical therapy, chiropractic or other types of exercise rehabilitation may be needed. Dietary balancing can be invaluable.
For example, mineral deficiencies prevent joints from rebuilding after stress, and diets high in sugar, red meat, and fried foods create inflammatory reactions that can aggravate degenerative changes. Any food reactivities should be eliminated to decrease pain and swelling. Omega-3 fats, glucosamine sulfate and testosterone are all needed for cartilage growth, and deficiencies in any of these will contribute to degenerative changes. Low vitamin D is one of the most underappreciated nutritional deficiencies associated with degenerative arthritis, low-back pain, and "persistent, non-specific musculoskeletal pain." It should be noted that taking high amounts of omega-3 fats and vitamin D can be associated with excess bleeding or toxicity reactions and thus should be monitored by your doctor.
One of the most helpful treatments I have found for degenerative arthritis, chronic tendonitis and ligament laxity is prolotherapy (also known as regenerative injection therapy). This is a method of injecting joints and tendon insertions with a solution of dextrose to stimulate ligament and cartilage formation, resulting in stronger, more stable joints. This treatment was developed in the 1930s by orthopedic doctors wanting more options in the treatment of chronic joint pain. It has been endorsed by former surgeon general C. Everett Koop and provisionally by the Mayo Clinic. Studies on prolotherapy are ongoing at the National Institute of Health, among other places.
Prolotherapy is nontoxic, has no side effects and is extremely effective when used in the right situations.
Improvements in joint pain may not be as out of reach as you thought. With a little "elbow grease," you might be well on your way to enjoying summer activities again.
Dr. Deborah Angersbach is a naturopathic physician at Yellowstone Naturopathic Clinic. She can be reached at 259-5096. Send naturopathic health questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.