Oh, my aching joints!

I hear it every day in the office: “My joints ache!” Arthritis is a common (but abnormal) disease.  There are over one hundred conditions that fall under the heading of arthritis but the most common is osteoarthritis, or degeneration.  It is an “abnormal wear and tear” disease of weight bearing joints like the spine and knees.  Calcium deposits form on the bones and the buffer cartilage that protects bone ends breaks down.  People with osteoarthritis often find stiffness, pain, joint immobility, bone deterioration and pain and swelling in joints and spine during damp weather.

Arthritis is breakdown in the body and the only way to prevent it is to keep the body working properly.  It’s like tires on a car.  If your car is out of alignment, the tires will breakdown faster because they are wearing unevenly.

Every ten pounds of excess weight increases the risk of osteoarthritis in the knees by 30%.  The reason is not just that excess weight puts chronic stress on your knee joints.  Being overweight even increases the risk of osteoarthritis in your hands.  No one knows exactly why, but one possible reason is that fat cells make estrogen, and that excess estrogen is somehow involved in joint damage.  Support for this idea comes from the observation that women have more osteoarthritis than men, especially if they have had symptoms of estrogen excess, such as uterine fibroids.  When your diet is low in fat and high in fiber, the amount of estrogen in your blood quickly drops to a healthier level.

You have to be careful about just popping pills for arthritis.You may remember when Merck Pharmaceuticals announced that their drug Vioxx, used for arthritis sufferers, had been shown to cause heart attacks and strokes in users of over 18 months duration.  It was pulled off the market.

Short term use has its problems too.  Because drugs “mask” your symptoms, you may believe that your condition is under control because your shoulder feels okay or your knee isn’t as swollen, or your back feels better.  But the disease process does continue, whether you feel its effects or not.

Often patients tell me they have arthritis from “old age.”  They think it is a normal process of aging.  Degenerative arthritis is common but not normal (like headaches.)  This type of arthritis can occur when you have irritation to the spine caused by subluxation, or misalignment in the spinal vertebrae.  Your chiropractor can tell you by taking an x-ray if you have spinal misalignment and arthritis in your spine.

I have patients in their 70s and 80s who have been under chiropractic care much of their lives with no decay or degeneration in their spine.  I also have patients in their 30s and 40s who have neglected their spine and have arthritis.  In fact, chiropractic is often used to prevent arthritis from occurring in the spine.

The first step in detecting degenerative spinal arthritis is spinal imbalance.  When we find spinal imbalance we always either find a situation where arthritis is beginning or where arthritis has progressed.  Spinal imbalance can be detected by checking posture.  When you stand with your legs shoulder width apart can you see one shoulder higher in the mirror, or one hip higher?  Have a family member or friend look at your posture from the side.  Is your ear lobe right above the tip of the shoulder?  If your shoulders or hips are uneven or your earlobe is in front of the tip of your shoulder, you may have spinal imbalance.  Over time, spinal imbalance leads to arthritis.  If you look in photographs and know your shoulder has been higher since you were a teenager, chances are there is arthritis in your spine.

Once you know you have osteoarthritis, what do you do?  Supplements like glucosamine and chondroitan sulfate can help over time.  They won’t fix the biomechanical cause of the problem but they will help repair the damage and help with pain.  You don’t need a prescription and can buy them at a health food store.  Taken along with vitamin C (at least 500 mg taken throughout the day) increases their effectiveness.

I’d also recommend getting a thorough evaluation by a chiropractor to see if the spinal imbalance is correctable.  If it is at all, it may help halt the progression of the arthritis.  If it isn’t, regular adjustments may at least help with pain, and are drug free.

Lastly, we can prevent spinal imbalance in several ways.  Aside from regular chiropractic adjustments, posture plays a big role.  The way you sit, sleep, drive and swing a golf club will affect your posture over time.  Pay attention to your posture, be balanced in your activities.  Don’t sit on your wallet or sleep on your stomach.  Sleep with a supportive pillow on your side and a very thin pillow when on your back. Don’t cradle the telephone between your shoulder and head.  Make sure your mattress is supportive.  If you sit at a computer, make sure the screen is at eye level and the keyboard at a level where you can keep your arms comfortably at your side at a ninety degree angle.  Being careful of good ergonomics will give you more energy, help keep your spine healthy and possibly prevent arthritis in your future!

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