Ask The Doctors: October 2018
Q: I’ve heard that the spice turmeric can treat arthritis. Will it help my knee osteoarthritis?
A: The bright yellow spice turmeric, a relative of ginger, contains the chemical curcumin, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. With osteoarthritis, inflammation is a main cause of pain. The condition occurs when cartilage (which covers the ends of bones in joints) wears down. The body tries to repair the damage, which triggers an inflammatory response. Reducing inflammation can help relieve some of the pain.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (AdvilŽ, MotrinŽ) and naproxen (AleveŽ), can dampen inflammation. But they have potential side effects and should be taken only for short periods of time.
Some evidence suggests that curcumin may reduce joint inflammation and pain. A recent study, published in Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism (March 2018), which combined results from 11 studies, found that curcumin was more effective than placebo for pain relief and improving function in people with knee osteoarthritis. However, the researchers noted that most of the studies were small and not of the highest quality.
Turmeric is easy to include in your diet. You can either add it to the foods you cook or take it as a supplement. Turmeric can thin blood, so people who take a blood-thinning medication should not use it. At high doses it can cause stomach upset.
Keep in mind that turmeric should be used as part of a comprehensive treatment program that also includes weight loss (if overweight), physical therapy, a knee brace (for knee osteoarthritis), and other treatments recommended by your doctor. Also, adding turmeric to an otherwise unhealthy diet will not achieve the results you want. An overall anti-inflammatory eating pattern emphasizes vegetables, fruits and whole grains instead of stripped grains.
Q: Which will work better for my painful arthritic joints, heat or cold?
A: Applying heat or cold to a painful area is a simple, inexpensive method for relieving pain. Cold reduces swelling and numbs the area. Heat loosens up muscles, increases flexibility, and increases circulation. For an acute injury, such as a pulled muscle or injured tendon, the usual recommendation is to start by applying ice to reduce inflammation and dull pain. Once inflammation has gone down, heat can be used to ease stiffness.
For a chronic pain condition, such as osteoarthritis, heat seems to work best. However, some people find that cold also helps to dull the pain. So the answer is, try them both and use whichever works best for you. Exercise is an important part of treatment for osteoarthritis. Heat and cold can also be used to make exercising a little easier. Try using heat before exercise to loosen up muscles and cold afterwards to minimize any achiness.
For heat, soak in a warm bath, hot tub or whirlpool for about 20 minutes. Or take a warm shower. Dress warmly afterwards to prolong the benefit. A heating pad is another good way to warm up an area. You can also buy moist heat pads. Or, heat a damp washcloth in the microwave for about 20 seconds. Test it to make sure it’s not too hot. Wrap it in a dry towel and apply it to the painful area.
For cold therapy, use an ice pack. Apply for 20 minutes at a time. Gel-filled cold packs are inexpensive and available in different sizes and shapes. Keep several in the freezer. Frozen peas or ice cubes in a baggie also work.