Maintaining Healthy
Joints for Active Ageing

Arthritis is one of the most common chronic diseases, with more that half of people aged over 65 and one in four Australians aged 45-64 dealing with arthritis. Arthritis can affect joints, surrounding tissue and other connective tissue. There are over 100 different types of arthritis, among which osteoarthritis is the most common, followed by rheumatoid arthritis and gout. It is also possible for a person to have more than one type of arthritis at the same time.

Arthritis involves aches and pain which can impact upon daily lives, as well as having social and economic effects. People with arthritis are 2.7 times more likely to experience general poor health, 2.3 times more likely to experience very severe pain and 1.8 times more likely to suffer from psychological distress.

Although appropriate treatments vary according to individual cases, there are many lifestyle changes that can help manage the symptoms of arthritis, including pain and stiffness. Regular exercise, including walking, gardening, yoga, and sports, weight management, and a healthy and balanced diet are extremely important and often recommended by healthcare professionals.

Many Australians also use complementary medicines for treating and preventing joint disease, often alongside conventional medical treatments. In fact, with a growing and ageing population and increasing prevalence of chronic diseases, complementary medicine sales are dominated by the older population, who often have a strong awareness of the importance of preventive health for wellbeing.

This popularity is backed by science, with numerous studies indicating the effectiveness of complementary medicines in the treatment of arthritis. A few of the more common complementary medicines used for joint health are discussed below.

Glucosamine & Chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin are both naturally occurring building blocks of joint tissue and cartilage and are used to enhance joint integrity and repair damage. Glucosamine supplements are made from oysters and crab shells, and chondroitin supplements from shark or bovine cartilage. This combination is effective in treating the pain and joint disability of osteoarthritis and may act to slow the progress of the disease. Symptomatic relief may take several weeks, while protective effects on the joints can occur only with long-term use over several years. These supplements may help to reduce the need for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Willow bark
Willow bark has been used since ancient times as a treatment for pain and fever. Willow bark that contains salicin has shown anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain relieving) actions and can be used for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Studies on willow bark in treating diseases characterised by joint pain have found that effects start within one week of use, and patients using willow bark may find they have lowered requirements for anti-inflammatory medications.

Fish oil
The use of fish oil for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis is supported by numerous clinical trials that look at the treatment of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Fish oil has been consistently shown to reduce symptoms in rheumatoid arthritis, such as the number of tender joints, pain intensity and morning stiffness. Deep sea cold water fish, including salmon, mackerel and sardines are rich in beneficial omega 3 (EPA/DHA). As many Australian lack an adequate intake of omega 3 from their diet, supplementation can be advantageous for the management of joint health.

Devil’s Claw
Devil’s claw has been used in Europe for over 50 years for the treatment of rheumatic conditions. There is increasing scientific evidence suggesting that devil’s claw reduces pain as well as inflammation, and improves physical functioning in people with osteoarthritis. Studies have demonstrated significant improvements for patients in stiffness and function and also considerable reductions in pain, resulting in 60% of patients either reducing or stopping concomitant pain medication. Due to its significant anti-inflammatory and analgesic activity, devil’s claw is also used for pain and inflammation associated with gout and rheumatoid arthritis.

Turmeric has 4000 years of history in medicinal use, including for inflammatory and digestive disorders. Due to its powerful anti-inflammatory effects, turmeric has also been used to improve symptoms of osteoarthritis. Studies show that taking turmeric extract results in reduced pain and improved functionality in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee after 2-3 months of treatment. Moreover, patients taking turmeric extracts show significantly reduced usage of analgesics and NSAIDs. Other research also indicates that turmeric is effective in improving morning stiffness and joint swelling for rheumatoid arthritis.

Like turmeric, ginger has been used as food and medicine since ancient times. Ginger has been used as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic agent for arthritis. One clinical trial has indicated that ginger and ibuprofen significantly reduced pain when compared to placebo. Another study demonstrated that ginger significantly reduced pain upon standing, pain after walking, and stiffness compared to placebo. There is also research suggesting the benefit of massage therapy using an aromatic essential oil containing ginger to reduce stiffness and pain intensity in patients with knee pain.

SAM-e (S-adenosyl-L- methionine)
SAM-e is a naturally occurring molecule that is found in humans and is present in almost every tissue and fluid in the body. SAM-e has anti-inflammatory and analgesic actions. Some studies conclude that SAM-e is as effective as NSAIDs in reducing pain and improving functional limitation in patients with osteoarthritis without the adverse side-effects associated with NSAIDs. Usually, beneficial effects are seen within 4-5 weeks for osteoarthritis treatment.

Miho Kikuchi is a qualified naturopath and works as an industry development associate at Complementary Medicines Australia (CMA), the leading expert association exclusively committed to a vital and sustainable complementary medicines industry. CMA works to ensure consumers have access to complementary medicines of the highest quality and supports a healthcare model based on promoting long-term wellness of the community.