Do you ever experience knee pain when climbing stairs or standing up after sitting for a long time? If you wake up with joint stiffness and experience increased pain in the evening, along with popping sounds when you move your knee, you may have osteoarthritis.
Jonathan Liu, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner with more than 26 years of professional medical experience discussed in the program “Health 1+1” how to relieve joint pain with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), dietary therapy, and acupuncture, and shared tips for daily exercise to maintain joint health.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis and is also referred to as degenerative joint disease. Osteoarthritis affects more than 32.5 million American adults, particularly in the hands, hips, and knees. Liu notes that knee arthritis is especially common since the knee joint is weight-bearing and that half of the patients he sees in his clinic suffer from the ailment.
Liu explains that joint stiffness and soreness may occur in the early stages of osteoarthritis and can develop into a symptom called “morning stiffness,” wherein increased stiffness of the knee makes getting out of bed and initial walking difficult after a night’s sleep—as if the joint is locked up. It takes about 30 minutes of slow movements to unlock the knee before you can walk again.
He reminds us that if stiffness lasts more than 30 minutes, it could be rheumatoid arthritis. If the condition worsens, there may be pain during action, limited movement, and in the most severe cases, joint replacement surgery may be required.
Factors Affecting Osteoarthritis
Why does osteoarthritis occur? Liu listed the following influencing factors:
1. Aging: With every 5-year increase in age, the incidence of knee joint degeneration increases by 20 percent.
2. Higher risk in females: Women have a higher incidence of knee osteoarthritis than men due to decreased estrogen during menopause.
3. Body weight: A positive correlation exists between body mass index (BMI) and the age of onset of knee osteoarthritis. The higher the BMI, the earlier the onset of symptoms is. Reducing weight can lower the incidence of knee osteoarthritis.
4. Activity and occupational stress: Professional athletes and trade workers often experience knee osteoarthritis due to excess movement of the joints and injuries.
5. Bone density: Osteoporosis and knee osteoarthritis are related, so adequate calcium supplementation can protect knee joint health.
How does TCM Treat Osteoarthritis?
A study published in the Medicine (Baltimore) journal in 2019 tracked data from the Taiwan National Health Insurance Research Database and found that patients with knee osteoarthritis who underwent TCM treatment had a lower risk of total knee arthroplasty.
The study analyzed 34,231 patients diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis between 1997 and 2003. It divided them into two groups: one group received TCM treatment (including Chinese herbs and acupuncture), and the other received non-TCM treatment. The results showed that 7.3 percent of patients in the TCM group underwent total knee arthroplasty, while 8.2 percent of patients in the non-traditional Chinese medicine group underwent surgery.
In addition, the average hospitalization days for knee osteoarthritis patients in the TCM group was 30.5 days, compared to 43.5 days in the non-traditional Chinese medicine group. These findings provide strong evidence for the effectiveness of TCM in treating joint pain.
Liu said in TCM theory, the liver and kidneys are closely related to joint diseases. The liver is believed to govern tendons, including muscles, ligaments, and joint capsules—while the kidneys govern bones, and a decline in kidney function can lead to fragile bones. Therefore, TCM generally starts with regulating the liver and kidneys to prevent joint pain.
TCM treatment includes acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and dietary therapy. A study published in the Arthritis & Rheumatology journal in 2021 found that acupuncture can relieve knee joint pain and improve joint function.
TCM has discovered a “meridian” system in the human body—a channel for energy circulation. The internal organs are connected to various parts of the body through meridians. Certain points on the meridians, known as acupoints, can be stimulated through acupuncture or acupressure to treat corresponding diseases.
So, which acupoints can relieve knee osteoarthritis pain?
Liu suggests selecting knee acupoints, such as the Knee Eyes (Ex-LE5), Yang Mound Spring (GB 34), Yin Mound Spring (SP 9), Sea of Blood (SP 10), and Beam Hill (ST 34), along with acupoints that regulate the liver and kidneys, such as the Liver Shu (BL 18), Kidney Shu (BL 23), and Great Ravine (KI 3). He says that acupuncture on these acupoints can quickly relieve pain and treat acute flare-ups of knee osteoarthritis.
For herbal treatment, Liu said that classical TCM formulas in clinical treatments, such as Du Huo Ji Sheng Tang and Sanbi soup, can help strengthen the kidneys and benefit the joints.
In terms of dietary therapy, Liu recommends two medicinal foods:
1. Porridge with notoginseng root and salvia root
Ingredients: 15g (0.52 ounces) notoginseng root, 20g (0.70 ounces) salvia root, 30g (1.05 ounces) Diel’s millettia, 300g (10.58 ounces) rice
Instructions: Decoct the three herbs in 600ml (20.28 fl. ounces) water until the liquid is reduced by half. Cook the rice with water to make congee (porridge), then mix the congee with the herbal decoction. Take one serving daily.
Liu explains that notoginseng root and salvia root can promote blood circulation, resolve stasis, and relieve pain, while Diel’s millettia can invigorate blood, regulate menstruation, and promote circulation. This medicinal congee is suitable for individuals who are young and have experienced joint injuries, but do not have other chronic illnesses.
2. Eucommia bark and mulberry mistletoes tea
- 15g (0.52 ounces) eucommia bark
- 15g (0.52 ounces) doubleteeth pubescent angelica root
- 15g (0.52 ounces) epimedium
- 5g (0.17 ounces) mulberry mistletoes
- 12g (0.42 ounces) gentiana macrophylla root
- 10g (0.35 ounces) Chinese angelica root
- 10g (0.35 ounces) Szehuan lovage root
- Rinse the herbs, then decoct them in a clay pot with water
- Bring it to a boil over high heat, add 15g (0.52 ounces) of cooking wine
- Simmer on low heat for 20 minutes
Filter the herbal liquid and repeat the above process with the herbal residue. Combine the two liquid portions. Serve on an empty stomach in the morning and afternoon for at least a week.
Eucommia bark and mulberry mistletoe tea can strengthen the liver, kidneys, tendons, and bones, dispel cold and dampness, promote blood circulation, and alleviate pain. It suits older individuals with accompanying lower backache and leg pain symptoms.
Liu advises that these medicinal food recipes and teas are suitable for treating early-stage osteoarthritis. However, if the condition has reached a severe stage, it is important to consult a professional physician for diagnosis and treatment.
How to Exercise With Osteoarthritis?
Exercise is another key aspect of maintaining joint health. Liu emphasizes that individuals with osteoarthritis should avoid vigorous and high-intensity exercises such as hiking or stair climbing, as they can strain the joints and damage the knee joints. Recommended exercises include swimming, cycling, and brisk walking. He suggests regular low to moderate-intensity exercise sessions, two to three times per week, for eight to 11 weeks, which can help alleviate symptoms.
Liu advises adhering to four principles for maintaining joint health:
1. Moderate exercise and avoidance of high-intensity activities.
2. Protecting the knee joints: Cold and damp conditions harm joint health, so it is best to avoid wearing shorts or clothes that expose the knees unnecessarily.
3. A healthy diet and weight control: Obesity is the greatest enemy of knee joints, and maintaining a healthy weight contributes to joint health.
4. Supplementing with vitamins C and D: In addition to a balanced diet, it is beneficial to supplement with vitamins C and D as they support the health of muscles and bones. Extra vitamin D can be obtained through sun exposure.
Note: Some herbs mentioned above may be unfamiliar, but many are available in health food stores and Asian groceries. In addition, each person’s body constitution is different, so the corresponding treatment method is also different; please consult a professional doctor for specific treatment options.