William A Gardner
Health & Wellness
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The Bane of Arthritis
Arthritis is one of those creeping ailments. A cold arrives quickly and leaves on a relatively short predictable schedule. Arthritis on the other hand is like moss growing over a fallen tree in a damp shadowy forest. It gains a foothold like some sort of silent ninja below the threshold of awareness and only when pain reveals its presence do we realize the threat. It is fickle, attacking one or more joints, or manifesting with a variety of symptoms that can change over time. It slowly gets worse. History reveals it to be an ancient disease. Both historical texts and archaeological evidence show that ancient people suffered the same ailment. It can come and go. Severe episodes, called flares, can occur with little or no warning. The pain can be severe or mild. A person who has never experienced arthritis finds it difficult to comprehend the level of pain that can be experienced when, for example, an inflamed joint bumps against a hard surface. It is relentless and pitiless. It can disfigure hands and feet, making it difficult to perform normal tasks. Severe cases can be dangerous when it affects other organs. Even in a mild case the disease drains energy from the body and thus fatigue is a common side effect.
Years ago when I developed symptoms of arthritis and sought out a doctor's advice the visit went something like this.
The nurse had a warm yet professional manner and was all efficiency. I could see her practiced eyes surveying me from head toe, noting how I walked and watching my fingers as I filled out the initial consultation questionnaire. I wondered how she catalogued the patients and where I fitted in her taxonomy. On a scale of one to ten was I a two or a three? Later I was to revise this scale when I realized just how serious arthritis can be for some people. After I had completed the forms she led me to an examination room, used a scale to measure my weight and height, and then left me to stare at diagrams of healthy and depressingly diseased joints on the walls. After the doctor made an examination he said, "You have osteoarthritis. It is a progressive disease which attacks the joints. We don't know the exact cause but there are a lot of drugs which we can use to control it, or at least slow down the progression and minimize further joint damage."
"What sort of drugs?" I asked.
His response was full of strange names, only a few of which I'd heard before like aspirin and Tylenol.
"Tell me", I said, "if I go on one of these drugs like metho... whatever - I couldn't remember the name - then how long will it take to cure the arthritis?" There was a slight pause and he had looked at me in a way that I couldn't quite identify. It was only momentary, however, and then he was off on what was apparently a well-rehearsed speech.
"There are millions of dollars being spent on research into arthritis. Our understanding of this disease is far ahead of where it was a few years ago. We know that it is a malfunction of the immune system where the body for some reason starts to attack its own tissues, particularly at the joints. In older people it may well be from simple wear and tear on the joints. Our understanding of these mechanisms is improving rapidly and there are new drugs coming out all the time. There are many types of arthritis. Fortunately you have osteo arthritis which is one of the least severe types, and you have sought treatment at an early stage. All this is good. With proper medication you can live a long and pretty normal life."
Somehow this left me unsatisfied. "And what about a cure" I said. "How can I get rid of the arthritis?"
Again the pause. "Well, we don’t talk about a cure. At the moment we don’t have any medicines that will 'cure' arthritis. We focus on slowing it down and preventing further joint damage. With proper medication and the fact that you are in the early stages, this all suggests that we can keep the arthritis under control and you can lead a full and active life. Some people even have remissions where the disease gets better on its own. Reduce stress and get some exercise. As for diet, research indicates that what you eat is not a factor. Come back to see me in six months, or if your symptoms get a lot worse."
I left with more questions than answers. But I wasn't one to take this without fighting back.
In the business sales world where shaking hands is an everyday experience I came to the point where shaking anyone's hand was something I avoided. It was just too painful. I knew that I had to do something to deal with the condition. The common medical narrative was still similar to that described above but I was reluctant to start climbing the pharmacological ladder. I delved into research of the immune system and then created my own clinical trial. The result amazed me. The solution, essentially a cure, was based on the concept that the immune system was trying to perform as it should but was blocked in some fashion from its normal healing function. Find the cause and you find the cure.
We live in a sea of microorganisms, all jostling and competing to obtain food, find a suitable environment to live, and reproduce. To many of them, we humans are a wonderful place to set up residence and achieve all three of these goals at once. Some organisms specialize in achieving a symbiotic relationship with their host while doing little harm. The effect of others can vary from serious to severe, from discomfort to death. Some specialize in reducing organic matter to its basic molecular form which can then be recycled within the greater organic biosphere. We are under siege. Our body is subject to attack every second of every day. But we are protected by an amazing evolutionary construct: the immune system. Without it our life would be measured in days rather than decades. Yet the immune system, powerful as it is, cannot protect us from all threats. And that power can itself be a threat.
Despite the medical avowal that arthritis has no cure, my stubborn belief that all challenges have a solution led me down an interesting path of research and trial. The concept was to work with the immune system rather than trying to modify it. That trial, which essentially cured my arthritis, was similar to how one would cure any other pathological disease such as pneumonia. It convinced me that there is hope. And when I speak of a cure, one should consider it like recovering from any other bacterial or fungal infection. You may be cured but that doesn't mean that you will never contract it again. Thankfully, with a few ordinary measures related to lifestyle and diet, it may never return.
When I see other people with arthritis symptoms I feel that I should share my experience with them. I am pain-free and they are not. Therefore I am making it the subject of a book that I expect to finish by 2020.