Arthritis is a disease of imbalanced body chemistry. Whatever the immediate factor that heralds the onset of arthritis, the body is not eliminating uric acid efficiently. Some people's bodies get rid of toxins more efficiently than others, and all of us do so better at some times than at others. Stress and anxiety reduce our ability to deal with toxic wastes; incorrect diet gives the body more toxins to deal with and environmental pollution adds to the total burden the body has to cope with. Once a toxic accumulation has built up, it will eventually manifest itself as dis-ease, taking varying forms in different individuals.

In arthritis, uric acid is deposited as crystals in joint spaces, causing inflammation, pain, stiffness, loss of mobility and eventually damage to the joint surfaces. The joints affected are often those that have been most heavily used: in sports, dance and physically demanding occupations, for example, or through incorrect posture and where extra loads are imposed on the major weight-bearing joints (hips, knees and ankles) in people who are seriously overweight. The site of an earlier injury may be vulnerable point. In gout (which is a form of arthritis) the joints of the toes are most commonly affected, though the fingers may be, too. Attacks are intensely painful, with acute inflammation of the joint. After repeated attacks, large deposits of uric acid crystals (known as tophi) cause permanent swelling and deformity of joints, particularly noticeable in the knuckles.

Inflammation, sometimes acute but quite often of a 'grumbling' nature, is also a feature of rheumatoid arthritis. The onset of rheumatoid arthritis may be caused by infection - possibly by a virus - but recent evidence suggests that a form of auto-immunity is involved, i.e., that the sufferer has an allergic reaction to some of his or her own body tissues.

Osteo-arthritis is less likely to be inflammatory in nature, but is characterised by degeneration of the smooth gliding surfaces of the joints, and occurs more often in middle-aged and elderly people as the result of 'wear and tear'.

The accepted medical view is that arthritis is incurable and treatment is confined to relief of pain with analgesic and anti-inflammatory drugs (often with undesirable side effects). Joint replacement surgery may be offered where there is very serious degeneration of the joint, but this can only be used for the largest joints, such as the hip and knee, and involves far more major surgery than most people realise. Natural therapies, particularly aromatherapy and naturopathy, aim at altering the body chemistry.

First, the toxic build up must be eliminated, and then new accumulations of uric acid must be prevented. The body's own resources need to be stimulated to repair damaged surfaces as far as possible. Circulation to the affected joints must be improved, both to drain off the wastes and to improve nutrition to the affected tissues.

Essential oils can be used in a variety of ways to achieve these results. Detoxifying oils, such as Cypress, Fennel, Juniper and Lemon are used in baths and massage to help the body throw off poisons. Painkilling oils, such as Benzoin, Camomile, Lavender and Rosemary are used in baths, local massage or compresses on the affected joints, and local circulation can be improved by the use of rubefacient oils - Black Pepper, Ginger and Marjoram, for example. Whenever heat is applied to a painful, stiffened joint in the form of baths, hot compresses or warming massage, it is very important to move the joint as much as possible immediately afterwards, otherwise the heating can cause congestion which will make the condition worse rather than better. Any of these forms of treatment will reduce pain in the joint and make some movement possible. If very little unaided movement is possible, the therapist should gently manipulate the joint through as wide a range of movement as possible at the end of the massage. Gentle exercise is very helpful, yoga undoubtedly being the most valuable.

A serious aromatherapist, with a holistic approach, will obviously not 'treat' arthritis simply by trying to relieve symptoms. She/he will look at the whole person, and all the circumstances of that person's life. Often, a complex association of factors is involved. Bad nutrition, stress and obesity may all be found in one person, or poor nutrition allied to old injuries. In my experience, arthritis often afflicts people who are 'bottling up' grief, rage or hatred, or who are unable to express a creative talent. The aromatherapist needs to look at all these subtle factors and decide on essential oils and the form of treatment according to the personality and needs of the person. If the arthritis is of long standing, it will not be possible to undo major damage to joint surfaces, but in all cases pain can be reduced a great deal, mobility improved and further damage prevented. Where the arthritis is treated soon after its onset, complete rehabilitation is possible.

Dietary advice is an important part of any treatment. A cleansing fast at the beginning of treatment will help elimination of toxins and mobiiise the body's own powers of recuperation. A restricted diet may be needed until pain and inflammation have been reduced, and some permanent adjustments made to the diet - usually excluding red meats (especially pork and all pig products), tea and coffee and reducing or excluding alcohol. Some people may discover other foods that aggravate their condition. Vitamin and mineral supplementation is often helpful during the early stages of treatment, especially of Vitamin A, the B complex and vitamin E, also calcium pantothenate. A herbal extract 'Devil's Claw' has been found helpful in a great many cases.

See also Uric Acid, Gout and Arthritis and Joint Pain Relief.

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