Treating Arthritis Pain – Naturally

Author: Janice McColl, B.S.P., M.Sc., M.H.

Arthritis is an inflammatory condition of the joints that affects more than 37 million Americans – that’s one in every seven people. It is a debilitating disease that has a dramatic impact on the life of the victim, affecting normal activities like gardening, swinging a golf club and other daily activities. Arthritis and other joint conditions are far more common in women than in men. In fact, nearly twice as many women suffer from arthritis as men.

There are more than 100 types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, spinal arthritis, gout, and lupus. The painful and crippling symptoms of these diseases lead sufferers to seek relief in a variety of forms.

The most common source of relief is through both prescription and over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Although these drugs provide the necessary pain relief, up to 50% of patients are unable to tolerate long-term NSAID treatment due to side effects. Those side effects include abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, heartburn, and upset stomach. Close to 30% of patients on long-term NSAID treatment develop ulcers of the stomach, which can lead to severe bleeding and death.

Relief from inflammatory conditions may be obtained through certain lifestyle changes. Achieving a normal body weight to reduce the excess load on the joints is essential. Diet plays a very important role; consuming a diet low in saturated fats and trans fatty acids (“bad” fats), while rich in essential fatty acids (“good” fats), and including a wide range of fruits, vegetables and whole grains will help with weight management. Regular exercise also helps to accomplish weight loss and weight control while improving circulation to the joint and range of motion. Activities such as walking, swimming and cycling can be easily incorporated into a daily routine.

The effects of GLA on Rheumatoid Arthritis

Many people are looking for a gentler form of treatment that remains effective against arthritic pain and will allow them to reduce their usage of NSAIDs.

Over the last 15 years, researchers have performed several clinical studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of GLA on the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Patients appear to be deficient in GLA and many patients respond favorably to treatment with GLA, especially in recent clinical trials where dosages were greater than 1.4 grams of GLA/day. Early studies used relatively low dosages with some success. For example, as early as 1988, researchers confirmed that supplementation with 540 mg of GLA per day could help patients reduce their usage of NSAIDs. Later research showed that higher dosages could achieve still greater results.

In 1993, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, 24-week trial with 37 rheumatoid arthritis patients. Patients in the treatment group received 1.4 grams of GLA per day, and assessed their symptoms on a daily basis. Treatment with GLA reduced the number of tender joints by 36%, the tenderness of the joints by 45%, the number of swollen joints by 28%, and the degree of joint swelling by 41%, whereas the placebo group did not show significant improvement in any measure. The researchers concluded that GLA in the doses used in the study is a well-tolerated and effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.

Research has confirmed reductions in the duration of morning stiffness, and reductions in joint swelling and tenderness, and pain. In particular a recent meta-analysis conducted in April 2000 of six placebo-controlled trials found that the duration of morning stiffness may be reduced by 60 to 70% (eg. two hours of morning stiffness could be reduced to half an hour). Reduction in morning stiffness dramatically improves the quality of life for patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.

Getting the GLA you need

The best source of GLA is borage oil, which contains up to 24% GLA. Evening primrose oil (8-10% GLA) and black currant oil (15-17% GLA) are other good sources of GLA. Because of the higher concentration of GLA in borage, fewer capsules are needed to achieve the required dosage.

Positive effects on rheumatoid arthritis can be seen with dosages in the range of 6 to 11 grams of borage oil per day.  The first positive effects of GLA on rheumatoid arthritis can generally be seen after one month of supplementation, with improvement continuing for a year or longer, suggesting that GLA may function as a slow-acting, disease modifying anti-rheumatic drug. Studies have shown that borage oil is safe and non-toxic, even in large amounts.