Painful joints can be extremely destructive to our overall health. The pain can come in many different forms. Some individuals may experience intense sharp pain from a particular joint while others experience dull aches in many or all their joints at once. Whether experienced as dull aches with stiffness, burning, or even shards of glass in a joint, any type of chronic pain places us under a high level of stress and causes a significant decrease in our quality of life. When our joints hurt, a vicious cycle can emerge where the pain causes decreased activity which then causes more joint pain and stiffness. In the meantime, physical conditioning deteriorates and drags our mental well being down with it. A favorite activity, like playing with children or grandchildren, can become tortuous, and sources of joy can be hard to find. In short, joint pain not only directly decreases quality of life but creates significant barriers to healthy behaviors that are critical to optimal health. Aching or damaged joints may not only be related to pain either, other signs of aching joints may include:
- Joint swelling
- Joint redness
- Joint warmth
- Joint tenderness
- Locking of joints
Joint pain can have many causes. The most basic causes are structural: insufficient or damaged cartilage, strained or torn ligaments, even bone fractures. This type of joint pain is often responsive to standard medical treatments such as surgery, yet long standing underlying dysfunction may still be the root of the problem. Obesity, inflammation, inactivity, and nutrient deficiencies are the most common root causes and these are not addressed through orthopedic surgery. Our joints require constant repair regardless of how much we use them and years or decades of dysregulation of this repair process is often to blame for structurally damaged joints. Even acute joint injuries may have been preceded by poorly maintained tissues that made injury more and more likely. Other than surgery, standard medical care involves the use of anti-inflammatories and pain medications that do nothing to address the underlying causes and often contribute to poor health through toxic drug side effects, addiction, digestive tissue destruction, and other side effects. Habitual and heavy use of prescription or even over the counter pain medication is common and even encouraged by drug manufacturer marketing. Yet, even when used as directed these medications have toxic effects on the body and can cause severe consequences such as stomach ulcers, liver damage, kidney damage, addiction, hearing damage, brain damage, and even increased risk of autoimmune disease.
Other types of joint pain are present without any structural issue with the joint itself, although if left untreated structural damage can and will eventually occur. The underlying causes of this type of joint pain are most commonly our own immune system attacking joint tissues or widespread inflammation. Autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are examples of our immune system directly attacking joint tissues while other inflammatory conditions such as IBD (crohn’s, ulcerative colitis), infections, and gout cause dysregulation of joint repair that can lead to joint pain and eventual destruction. Autoimmune disease can start as a collection of nebulous symptoms, including generalized joint pain, which don’t yet fit a classic disease diagnosis. The longer these symptoms are left unaddressed, the more likely a more severe and definable type of disease will emerge, after which complete recovery becomes more difficult. Standard medical approaches to autoimmune disease generally involve immune suppressants that can have severe side effects and pose increased risk of infection and cancer. Identifying the underlying cause of immune dysregulation is not usually considered.
No matter what the underlying cause of your joint pain is, it is not something that can be ignored without significant risk. As joint damage becomes worse, it becomes more difficult to heal properly and the risk of lifelong disability and pain rises. If the cause of joint pain is systemic in nature, joint pain may also just be the tip of the iceberg. The same type of dysregulation of body systems that leads to joint pain can also contribute to more deadly outcomes like cardiovascular disease and severe forms of autoimmune disease, such as lupus (SLE), MS, and ALS.
How we work with these problems: Dr. Sharp, our medical director, has been on a quest for over forty five years to explore the many approaches to understanding and healing core breakdowns in people’s health. The work of functional medicine is to discover what’s going wrong. Conventional medicine is concerned with making a diagnosis and treating with pharmaceuticals – which often amount to only the treatment of symptoms and the actual causes. Our approach with each person that comes to us for help is individualized. Often diagnostic tests that are rarely performed in mainstream medicine allow us to identify where the normal physiological processes of the body are breaking down. For individuals with sleep problems, the testing process includes in-depth biochemical and electrophysiological sleep studies at home.
We have built a team of professionals, including a functional medicine physician, a dietitian/nutritionist, and a stress resilience coach. Together and collaboratively, we seek first to understand and address all the causes of illness. For many of our patients, past traumas play a role in persistent health problems, especially pain. Our collective skill set includes help for resolving the impact of past traumas and releasing obstacles to healing.
Our holistic process means that we are able to address multiple lifestyle elements that influence health:
- diet and correction of nutrient deficiencies,
- learning and practicing the skills of stress resilience,
- a rational and individualized plan for exercise and fresh air,
- attention to healthy sleep,
- elimination of toxins from our immediate environment and from our bodies,
- and active support for building new skills and habits.
This approach can be very powerful in addressing joint pain and much more effective than any one therapy on its own.