Osteoarthritis, sometimes called degenerative joint disease, is the most common form of arthritis. Osteoarthritis occurs when cartilage in the joints wears down over time. The smooth surface of the cartilage becomes rough, causing irritation. Eventually, if the cartilage wears down completely, there may be no cushion left between the bones and the joint may be left with bone rubbing on bone, causing damage to the ends of the bones and the joints to become painful. The disorder can affect any joint in your body, but most commonly affects joints in your hands, hips, knees, neck, and lower back.
Osteoarthritis symptoms often develop slowly and worsen over time. Symptoms of osteoarthritis include joint pain (during or after movement), joint tenderness when palpated, joint stiffness (especially upon awakening or after a period of inactivity), loss of flexibility in the joint, a grating sensation in the joint, and bone spurs (extra bone that may form around the affected joint and feel like hard lumps).
It isn’t clear what causes osteoarthritis in most cases. Researchers suspect that a combination of factors may play a role in the condition, including the aging process, joint injury or stress, heredity, muscle weakness, and obesity.
There is no known cure for osteoarthritis, and those suffering from osteoarthritis must look for treatments to relieve pain and manage symptoms. Western medical treatment for osteoarthritis includes pain relievers, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), cortisone shots, and in more severe cases surgery to replace the joint, to fuse the bones in the affected joint, or to realign the affected bones. Physiotherapy, occupational therapists, and braces or shoe inserts may also be recommended, to reduce stress on the joint.
Acupuncture is a useful option to help manage osteoarthritis and help prevent further progression of this condition. Acupuncture sees osteoarthritis as a “bi syndrome”, meaning that it is caused by a blockage that prevents circulation of blood and qi-energy to the joint, leading to pain and stiffness. Over time, the syndrome progresses and the joint deteriorates because of the lack of proper nourishment. Acupuncture focuses on removing the obstruction to the joint and increasing circulation so that the can joint receive proper nourishment. In this way, the symptoms of pain, inflammation, and stiffness can be relieved, and the joint can become stronger and healthier.
This is one of the strengths of acupuncture, especially in the treatment of chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis- acupuncture focuses not only on relieving the symptoms but also on strengthening the body and supporting healing, to address the cause of the problem. In this way, acupuncture can help a person with osteoarthritis not only live symptom-free, but also help them to manage the condition in a healthy way and prevent or slow the progression of the condition.
With osteoarthritis, we should remember that this is a problem that will not go away and a proactive approach is necessary. Having osteoarthritis does not necessarily mean that a person must be resigned to pain and suffering- steps can be taken to minimize or prevent symptoms. The key to living with a condition such as this is to take steps towards healthy management through exercise, lifestyle changes, and therapies which relieve symptoms and help manage the condition. Acupuncture is certainly worth considering as part of this routine.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, Kelowna, BC.