Imagine for a moment that your home is on fire and your local fire department arrives to “save the day” by cutting the power to your fire alarm. While the hyperbole of this anecdote flies in the face of everything we find to be logical when it comes to fire safety, the analogy is far from exaggerated in relation to how medicine has historically addressed chronic pain.
Much of the reason for our stunted understanding is that our approach is grounded in the idea that the pain itself is the problem, which leads us to ignore the fact that pain is just an internal alarm informing us that something has gone awry.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) pain is like that blaring alarm in response to our imaginary fire, and we must learn to put the fire out by discovering its true causes.
Have you considered all the possible factors, including genetic, dietary or digestive issues, or infections and inflammatory factors that may play a role in RA? When you better understand the factors contributing to your pain, you may change the way you experience it. Here’s a look at a few ways people living with RA might use naturopathic medicine to help ease pain.
1. Think of Food as Medicine
The Mediterranean diet has been well studied for a variety of health concerns. When compared to an omnivorous diet in people with RA, the Mediterranean diet showed improvements in “inflammatory activity, an increase in physical function, and improved vitality,” according to a study published in March 2003 in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.
The eating style consists primarily of seasonal plant-based foods from local sources. Whole grains, legumes, and nuts form the bulk of the diet. Healthy fats are encouraged, along with various herbs and spices for flavoring (instead of added salt, for example). Red meat is limited, but fish and poultry can be eaten in moderation. Red wine (1 glass for women, 1 to 2 for men) with dinner is acceptable, as is high-quality dark chocolate (70 percent cacao or more) in moderation for dessert. Some full-fat dairy is okay, and fresh fruit serves as the main source of dessert.
2. Act Like an Optimist (Even if You Aren’t One)
Much of what we feel on an emotional plane is echoed in our physical well-being. The ability to stay optimistic in the face of hardships related to an RA diagnosis leads to reduced perception of physical dysfunction. While you may be thinking that a “fake” smile won’t do a person any good, research shows that even inauthentic optimism primes our body to better handle our pain.
In those suffering from RA and other causes of chronic pain, it’s important to uncover and thoroughly explore (under supervision of a qualified licensed mental health professional) the themes of helplessness, negativity, low self-esteem, and rumination on past traumatic life events. Early childhood trauma and trauma later in life can play significant roles in how we perceive both physical and emotional pain.
3. Consider Targeted Therapies to Relieve Pain
Discuss with your doctor or naturopathic physician the value of working to improve your digestive health, reduce intestinal permeability, and modulate bowel flora. In addition, physical therapies such as acupuncture, soft tissue work, massage, topical application of creams and gels, and low-level laser therapy are all viable options for direct pain relief.
4. Move Your Body Every Day
Based on the available research, there is no doubt that exercise is an important component in preventing and treating arthritis, albeit within the context of each individual’s ability to undergo physical activity. In a study of 30,112 womenpublished in March 2015 in Arthritis Research & Therapy, there was a 35 percent lower risk for developing RA among women in the highest category of leisure-time physical activity (median 40 to 60 minutes per day) and exercise (median 2 to 3 hours per week) compared to women in the lowest category (less than 20 minutes per day of walking or bicycling, and less than 1 hour per week of exercise).
A review concluded that yoga may be an important therapeutic tool for RA, improving “psychological and physiological” outcomes of arthritis. A general goal of 150 minutes of “moderate intensity” activity per week is recommended, with more recommended for those who can tolerate it.
Robert Kachko, ND, licensed acupuncturist, is medical director of the AgeWell Natural Health Program at Inner Source Health in New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut. He serves on the board of directors of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP).