Not all arthritis is created equal, and this is especially true when it comes to rheumatoid arthritis, also known as RA. Unlike osteoarthritis, which is the result of age-related wear and tear on your joints, RA is an autoimmune illness. While osteoarthritis is the most common kind of arthritis, it usually affects your weight bearing joints only, such as your hips and knees. In contrast, RA can affect your entire body, but frequently begins in the small joints of your hands, wrists, and feet.
As an autoimmune illness, RA is caused by confusion on the part of your immune system. Normally, your immune system is able to identify the good from the harmful when it comes to bacteria, viruses, and toxins in your body. However, an autoimmune illness occurs when your immune system becomes mixed up and sees your healthy cells as invaders, and attacks them. Scientists are unsure why this happens, but the result can cause a number of illnesses, including RA.
About a million and a half people in the US have RA, with about three times as many women as men being diagnosed. RA occurs most frequently in adults, but children can also get it. There isn’t a simple lab test to diagnose RA, so doctors combine signs, symptoms, and blood tests that may identify specific types of inflammation to diagnose this disease.
The symptoms of RA include joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and redness. In addition, as RA progresses, it causes joint destruction and deformity. However, because RA is an autoimmune illness, your whole body may also be affected. As a result, RA may also cause fatigue, achy muscles, poor appetite, and even depression. The systemic inflammation associated with RA can cause damage to your heart, lungs, eyes, nerves, and muscles. In addition, people with RA may have compromised immune function, and with it an increased risk for infections and developing other autoimmune illnesses.
There is currently no cure for RA, so treatment is focused on treating symptoms and controlling the disease progression. In Western medicine, RA is treated with medications to inhibit the immune system, decrease inflammation, and control pain. These may include NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory medications), steroids, DMARDs (Disease-Modifying Anti-Rheumatic drugs), and biologics, which target specific steps of the inflammatory process without wiping out your entire immune system.
In Chinese medicine, the symptoms of RA are considered to be a Bi (pronounced bee) Syndrome. Bi Syndromes are described as an impediment or blockage that occurs in one or more joints, due to inflammation, swelling, bone spurs, and poor circulation in the area. There are a number of different presentations of Bi Syndromes, including:
- Wind Bi, in which the symptoms move around from one joint to another
- Cold Bi, which is associated with severe pain and is aggravated by cold weather
- Damp Bi, in which the symptoms are worse during damp or humid weather
- Heat Bi, characterized by warmth and redness in the affected joints
It’s also possible to have a combination of these conditions. For example, you can have a combination of a damp and heat Bi Syndrome, in which your joints are hot, red, swollen, and made worse in the warm and humid weather.
Because there’s no cure for RA, many people add acupuncture and Chinese medicine to their Western treatments in order to better manage their RA symptoms, control flare ups, and slow the advance of this disease. A practitioner of Chinese medicine can combine acupuncture, Chinese herbs, diet, heat therapy, lifestyle changes, and other healing tools to help lessen the impact of RA. Acupuncture for arthritis treatment can help by decreasing the inflammation locally and systemically, increasing circulation in the affected areas, and reducing pain associated with this disease.
If you’ve been diagnosed with RA, there are some things that you can do to help control your symptoms, including:
- Don’t wait to seek treatment. The sooner you’re diagnosed and the more aggressively you’re treated, the better the outcome. The goal of treatment is to curb the inflammation, slow down the damage to your joints, prevent damage to other organs, and limit the progression of your RA.
- Use your diet as a healing tool. Because inflammation plays a large role in RA, choosing an anti-inflammatory diet can help control flare-ups and slow its progression. Simple dietary guidelines to reduce inflammation include reducing sugars and simple carbohydrates, and eating more plant-based foods, whole grains, nuts, fish, and heart healthy fats, such as olive oil.
- Get enough rest. Your body heals and regenerates while you’re sleeping.
- Stay active. Researchers have found that regular exercise can help keep your joints mobile and retain muscle strength. Activities such as walking, cycling, and swimming can help reduce pain and improve range of motion.
While RA isn’t curable, it doesn’t mean that you’re sentenced to a lifetime of pain, stiffness, and disability. By combining the best of Western medicine, the wisdom of Chinese medicine, and healthy lifestyle habits, you can help to control the symptoms, flares-ups, and inflammation associated with RA.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.