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Arthritis: Not Martyrdom, and Perhaps a Channel for Grace

Off-the-grid living usually involves a lot of hard work. Yes, there are trade-offs, and many of us may have sought the off-the-grid life in part because of the spiritual, physical and psychic toll we pay to be “plugged in”. Still, moving off the grid often brings a new and literal appreciation for the biblical injunction “By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat” (and water, heat in winter, and electricity to run our computers).

With that manual labor, particularly for those to whom it is new, comes pain as well as sweat—sometimes with swelling and stiffness. Even when manual labor has become a routine, more arduous tasks that may repeatedly push the body to its limits can have the same effect.

All this is normal, and the body has means to recover from it, aided by such home remedies as hot soaks, massage, warming up and cooling down for the most vigorous activity, and so on. What is not “normal”, although it may be our lot in life, is when the pain, swelling and stiffness become chronic. That can be just the beginning of some dramatic life changes, because chronic inflammation of the joints—what we mean when we say “arthritis”—indicates that damage has occurred: either physical damage to cartilage causing the inflammation (osteoarthritis) or inflamed soft connective tissues that in turn break down the cartilage (rheumatoid arthritis). And it’s not necessarily either/or—a person may suffer from, even be crippled by, a combination of these two most common varieties, or any of a hundred-odd other types.

Medicine Has Its Limits

Conventional medicine certainly does not throw up its hands in defeat at arthritis, but its wisest and most honest practitioners will admit what many patients realize sooner or later, that medical science is limited in what it can do for the arthritic. We have seen amazing treatment advances, such as joint replacement, that have made a world of difference for millions in reducing pain and in increasing mobility, productivity and quality of life.

Nonetheless, the underlying condition is usually considered incurable and progressive—in medical parlance, indicating “progression” into more severe symptoms, not “progress” in recovery. For rheumatoid arthritics, there is hope for remission, in which symptoms lessen or even disappear—occasionally spontaneously—and tests to monitor the inflammation yield results in the normal range. This is not considered a cure for a couple of reasons:

  • Whether its cause is known or unknown, remission may not last
  • Remission brought about by treatment pretty much always requires continuation of that treatment to have a chance of lasting

An incurable, progressive, potentially debilitating disease that often does not respond to treatment means that drug companies and medical technology companies are pouring (at least) millions of dollars into research for new medications and surgical techniques for arthritics. While this hot research area may yield long-term benefits, in the short term it is driven by corporate prospecting for patents and profits, meaning any clinically applicable results will hit the market with a high price tag.

For now, this process:

  • Can result in the approval of new drugs later found to be unsafe, or damaging in the way they were originally prescribed
  • Sometimes shoves aside and marginalizes older and still effective (for many) treatments whose patents have expired.

Before, Besides, and Beyond Pills and Shots

The limited relief offered by conventional medicine for chronic arthritis has created a vigorous folk culture of alternative, often eccentric “treatments”. Whether via email, spam ads, manipulated search results, or word of mouth, an arthritic can expect no end of dubious advice. The popularity of such “alternative” treatments, including both frivolous and even hazardous ones, has led the medical establishment, to its credit, to reexamine the possibility of interventions beyond drugs and surgery.

The National Institutes of Health offers an excellent overview of arthritis at its MedlinePlus site. Its section on treatment begins:

It is possible to greatly improve your symptoms from osteoarthritis and other long-term types of arthritis without medications. In fact, making lifestyle changes without medications is preferable for osteoarthritis and other forms of joint inflammation. If needed, medications should be used in addition to lifestyle changes. (Emphasis in original.)

Treatments with some verifiable science behind them include:

  • Exercise—for weight control, stamina, strength and range of motion
  • Physical therapy—particularly helpful in both building strength and avoiding injury from exercise
  • Topical treatments and dietary supplements
  • Stress reduction and proper rest—to reduce general inflammation
  • Sustainable diet for weight loss and control—to relieve the physical strain on joints and connective tissue

Medline Plus goes on to summarize current drug treatments, ranging from common over-the-counter pain relievers to stronger and more restricted-use drugs where you may have to weigh more serious risks against the promised relief.

The Arthritis Foundation website and its print magazine Arthritis Today nowadays approach treatment options with an open mind. They examine both conventional and alternative treatments for evidence that they work, and for any associated risk. They also offer practical tips for your encounters with the medical establishment—for example, as in a quick summary of lab tests, so you can know why doctors order them, and can better understand the results.

Ask and You Shall Receive

Arthritis may limit your ability to do pleasurable, useful, even necessary things. Acknowledging these limitations may be difficult, but please do not let pride keep you from getting the help you need. Remember Peter’s admonition that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” and be ready to accept His grace, whether in the form of the many ingenious assistive devices for arthritics, or direct help from others. There is no need to make your usual daily activities into a battle of wills with your limitations; accept the pleasure and accomplishment that can come from learning new ways to do the things you love, rather than making those activities exercises in pain and frustration. Do not try to make yourself a martyr.  Simply enduring pain may actually worsen and extend your condition.

As with many other chronic diseases, you can forestall, mitigate and even improve arthritis by following general recommendations for good health and peace of mind. Accepting the fact that you may need help does not end the struggle for the good life. An active mind and body, and staying as cheerful as your circumstances allow, is therapeutic throughout all stages of arthritis.

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