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Navigating Life with Arthritis

Navigating Life with Arthritis

What do stairs and buttons have in common? Read on to find out!

July is Juvenile Arthritis Awareness Month in the USA (in Canada it was recognized in March), and regardless of when it's recognized, it's a good reminder that arthritis can be a challenging scenario for people of any age. So while approximately 1 in 5 North Americans (and 50% of people 65 and older) suffer from arthritis, it’s still not well understood by most.

Arthritis is generally defined as the swelling and tenderness of one or more joints, and it is a disease that can make even the most low-impact activities a daunting challenge. There are many types of arthritis, such as lupus and fibromyalgia, but the two most common are rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA). OA and RA are divided into 4 stages but while they both affect the body’s joints, they are very different types of arthritis.

The more prevalent of the two, OA is primarily a degenerative joint condition and often results from the overuse of joints as you age. Injuries or excess body weight can also contribute to unhelpful stress on those joints. Stage 1 OA is usually very minor bone spur growth and may not include any pain or discomfort. Stage 2 is when the symptoms may begin to appear after a lot of use for particular joints. Moderate OA is considered Stage 3, and at this point, there is obvious damage to the cartilage and space between the bones in the joint is generally diminished. Stage 4 (severe) OA is when the active movement of the joint can be very difficult. Space between the bones is dramatically reduced, and the bones may be rubbing on each other, leaving the joint feeling very stiff (and possibly immobile).

Whereas OA is a result of the wear and tear on the joints, RA is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy cells within those joints, leading to the discomfort. Stage 1, or early-stage RA, consists of swelling within the joints as the tissues become irritated. Stage 2 (moderate-stage RA) is where the inflamed synovium in the affected joints begins to damage the joint cartilage. Stage 3 is where RA is considered “severe”. Damage at this point also includes the bones as they begin to rub together without the cartilage to protect the joints. At Stage 4, there is no longer inflammation in the joints, as they no longer work.

Another form of arthritis is Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA), formerly known as Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (JRA). It is an autoimmune disorder where the body also mistakenly identifies some of its own cells and tissues as “foreign”. The immune system begins to attack these healthy cells, resulting in inflammation that is often marked by redness, heat, swelling and/or pain. JIA is known to be sporadic, unpredictable and currently, studies have not shown any evidence of hereditary markers. It affects children 16 and under by causing joint inflammation and stiffness that lasts more than six weeks and it afflicts approximately 1 in 1,000 Canadian children (and in total about 50,000 youth in the United States).

As with adult arthritis, symptoms and discomfort of JIA can be managed with NSAIDs and sometimes disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs. Unlike adult arthritis, however, children often outgrow JIA. In some of these cases, a growing child’s bone development can be hindered when they suffer from JIA. Diagnosis of JIA isn’t done through a particular test but instead is based on symptoms and a physical exam. These diagnoses are sometimes confirmed with blood tests, x-rays or other imaging studies.

For most people, while there is no doubt that NSAIDs can be an enormous help for reducing arthritis-related pain, due to their associated risk factors, many leading Rheumatologists are seeking to de-medicalize treatment.

The Head of Rheumatology at Canada’s largest medical school wrote:

“I strongly believe that earlier intervention, including education, a healthy diet, exercise, weight management and lifestyle, including sleep, will reduce the impact of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, natural health products may play a helpful role in improved patient outcomes and reduced costs.”

As dietary choices can play a significant role in determining the severity of any arthritic symptoms, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most helpful foods and beverages to consume to moderate arthritis issues. This is also true in reverse, as a number of foods can negatively affect the way your body fights off inflammation. A healthy nutritional balance and effectively managing body weight can make a noticeable difference for many people with arthritis, regardless of their age or symptoms.

Fried foods, sugars and excessive amounts of alcohol or tobacco (or other products consumed by smoking), while perhaps enjoyable and habitual do not help the body rid itself of inflammation. Cheese and other high-fat dairy products, salts and preservatives, higher-fat oils are other foods that should be avoided where possible. Omega-6 (not Omega-3) fatty acids and red meats can be other major impactors of inflammation within the body as well as potential weight gain, both of which can lead to an increase in joint discomfort.

Luckily, there are a number of foods that can be good for arthritis and also weight management. This is important for keeping avoidable extra weight off the affected joints, as well as lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Where some sweetness is desired, sugar substitutes such as Splenda are safe to use. While many dairy products that are higher in fats can be avoided, egg whites and egg substitutes do not contain the yolk and therefore are fat- and cholesterol-free. Omega-3 fatty acids may even reduce the severity of the inflammation already residing within the body and joints. A number of fruits are recommended, including watermelons, tart cherries, strawberries and raspberries, avocados (a great source of “good” fat!), grapes and citrus fruits. Fish, nuts and soy can also be healthy, nutritional options and good alternatives for other sources of protein. Leafy green vegetables are rich in calcium and vitamin D, which can be great for those with a dairy intolerance. Whole grains have been found to lower c-reactive protein levels in the blood, which is a marker of inflammation often associated with heart disease, diabetes and RA.

Green, black and white teas, as well as coffee, are all rich in antioxidant polyphenols, which is a plant compound used to reduce inflammation. While milk is a potential inflammatory for some people with lactose intolerance, studies have generally shown that low-fat dairy products can be beneficial to many individuals. As a strong source of calcium, vitamin D and protein, milk can be a great defence against the progression of OA. Fresh juices and smoothies, while high in natural sugars and calories, can neutralize the effects of many radicals that lead to inflammation in the body. Above all, though, is water. Drinking enough water helps keep your joints well-lubricated and helps manage your weight. The hydration that water provides is also crucial for flushing toxins out of your system, which in turn prevents inflammation.

Supplements can include omega-3 fish oils, some herbal products, glucosamine, collagen, and of course, the SierraSil minerals or combinations of some of these. The SierraSil minerals have two patents as a nutritional supplement for osteoarthritis and a number of supporting clinical studies. These studies earned the confidence of the Rheumatologist above who subsequently recommended Sierrasil to some of his patients. He concluded that:

“The minerals have been helpful in the majority of patients. Many of these patients have felt less pain and have been more able to resume regular exercise or enhance their mobility or other activity, improving outcomes and well being. I note that the onset of such results has typically been within one or two weeks, surpassing my expectations.“

So arthritis affects people of any age, it is very common and can be very painful. It can make ascending or descending stairs or opening and closing buttons seem at best a painful exercise, or at worst insurmountable challenges. But with a little luck and proactive early, sustained intervention combined with good diet, lifestyle, exercise and supplement choices, many arthritis sufferers can reduce their use of drugs and maintain or recover some quality of life and independence despite their prognosis, and yes, not dread stairs or buttons!