I started having joint pain in my hands during medical school. I was 26 years old. I tried prescription and over the counter anti-inflammatories, along with acupuncture, but nothing helped.
Finally, after the suggestion of a holistic MD, I found that a few bee stings gave me complete relief of pain. (Yes, I was shocked too!) If you prefer not to get stung, there are some other very effective natural treatments derived from turmeric and hemp.
The joint pain I was experiencing in my hands was due to the “wear-and-tear” of arthritis, commonly known as osteoarthritis (OA). Over time, joints lose some of their natural cushioning due to daily activity, the same way brake pads in a car eventually wear down and need to be replaced. This loss of joint cushioning can lead to inflammation and pain. Due to differences in genetics and lifestyles, OA affects people to varying degrees. The most common joints affected are at the base of the thumbs and in the knees.
Standard medical treatment for OA pain starts with NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen, which can have significant health risks with long-term use, including kidney damage and stomach ulcers. Western medicine doesn’t treat the root of what’s causing the inflammation, only the symptoms. And for me, those pills didn’t help my joint pain at all.
Sting Like A Bee
Bee venom as a treatment for arthritis is an alternative (but not new!) approach. In fact, Hippocrates wrote about it in 400 BC. Bee venom contains many chemicals that trigger intense inflammation in the body, including those that make a bee sting itchy, hot, and swollen. The biggest chemical players are Phospholipase A2 and mellitin—both are factors in causing intense pain and inflammation.
So how could something that triggers pain and inflammation actually reduce arthritis pain? The chemicals in bee venom triggers the body to make more of its own anti-inflammatory hormones and mobilize the immune system to “send help” to the arthritic joint. As the immune system acts to repair the damage from the bee sting, it also repairs and reduces inflammation in any nearby tissues. Bee stings bring the focus of attention to the immune system, says one apitherapy expert. I have seen this therapy, both clinically and personally, work wonders for arthritis.
To use bee venom as a therapy, first you need to make sure you are not allergic to bees! Next, you should find a local beekeeper or apitherapist who can administer a sting without killing the precious pollinator. If you don’t live near an apitherapist, harvesting bee venom in a sterile solution can also be injected to simulate a sting. The bee venom is obtained by using low electric charges that stimulate bees to sting, without causing them to lose their stinger. This bee venom collection process has been studied extensively and although kinder than older methods, it does harm bees. One recent study found that, newer electrical stimulation methods killed about 10-15% of the bees in the colony.
Another method that uses very low doses of bee venom, and harms even fewer bees is “apipuncture” or bee venom acupuncture. This therapy, usually performed by acupuncturists, involves injecting diluted bee venom into specific acupoints near joints. It has been been shown to be effective for arthritis pain.
If bee stings or apipuncture are not appealing or available to you as a treatment, the plant world brings two other effective alternative arthritis therapies.
Spicy Yellow Goodness
Research has found that curcumin (the major ingredient of the yellow spice turmeric) is an “herbal ibuprofen,” with similar anti-inflammatory effects as these drugs but without the dangerous side effects. Curcumin is derived from turmeric plants, which are related to ginger. Its roots are dried and ground into a spicy orange powder that has been used in India for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. Curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory that reduces OA pain and the only side effect is its natural form can cause staining.
In an eight-month study of 100 osteoarthritis patients, supplementation with curcumin decreased arthritis pain and reduced inflammation. In another study curcumin was found to be better at reducing pain and swelling in arthritic joints than NSAIDs. The only caution I give my patients about using curcumin supplements is to talk with their health care provider first. If they also take blood thinners like warfarin, curcumin can increase the blood-thinning effects of these medications.
The Happiness of Hemp
I practice medicine in the state of Oregon, where cannabis is legal for medical use. Oregon has a plethora of locally made balms and salves sold in marijuana dispensaries. I specialize in treating fibromyalgia, and my patients find cannabis balms and salves (that contain both THC and CBD) very helpful for muscle and joint health.
But the good news for those who live in states where cannabis is illegal, there are still effective options containing CBD (cannabidiol) derived from hemp.
Hemp are marijuana (cannabis) plants that have very little THC content and thus extracts derived from them are legal and can be sold in all 50 states. Topical balms and salves that contain CBD derived from hemp plants have no mind-altering or psychoactive properties but do have joint supporting properties. CBD creams or oils can be rubbed directly on joints.
So before reaching for an ibuprofen, consider an alternative from the natural world, like hemp, turmeric or bee stings.
Ginevra Liptan, M.D. is a graduate of Tufts University School of Medicine and board-certified in internal medicine. She is medical director of The Frida Center for Fibromyalgia, a fibromyalgia specialty clinic. In May 2016, Dr. Liptan will be releasing her second book, “The FibroManual: A Complete Fibromyalgia Treatment Guide for You and Your Doctor,” which can be preordered now at amazon.com.
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