Arthritis treatment with Ayurveda

Published by Shruti on

My mother had been diagnosed with Osteoarthritis few years ago and had been seeking treatment about the same time as I was beginning to notice the persistent health issues in my body.

Her knees were severely affected with pain, swelling and gradual deformation for many years that was making it difficult to walk long distances and climb stairs. Her fingers were getting deformed too; she had begun to find it hard to twist the caps on bottles or make any other twisting movements with her fingers. The doctors were telling her she needs to get both her knees replaced through surgery while there was nothing to help her finger deformation. My mother continued to be active; powering through all her pain. She is a force to be reckoned with and I am so proud of her!  However Arthritis is a degenerative disease and western medicine had nothing to offer other than pain killers or knee surgery. 

Fortunately, some of her friends with similar arthritis issues had tried Ayurvedic treatment and seen benefits. We were new to Ayurveda and didn’t know much about the treatments. However, on their recommendation, she decided to try getting similar treatment. I joined my parents in India and we went to Trivandrum, Kerala for 10 days. My mother was admitted in a very well reputed Ayurvedic hospital for arthritis treatment.

I was very surprised to see that the treatment was quite different from what one might imagine at a regular hospital. 

  • Simple food: It involved eating very simple, easy to digest food. Boiled Moong dal with some spices would be served with watery rice every day for lunch and dinner. 
  • Plant based formulations: Freshly prepared plant based decoctions would arrive every day and would be followed by herbal tablets. The tablets or decoctions were being prepared from whole plants; not artificially synthesized chemicals.  
  • Body treatments: Therapists would apply heated herb filled cloth baggies dipped in fermented liquids all over her body. So a combination of heat, herbs and fermentation seemed to be used. Also a combination of oil massages and herb pastes were applied on all her joints and body. 

The approach to treatment was very different from what I had seen with modern western medicine so far; taking chemical pills, injections or invasive surgeries. I was really curious to understand more about this alternative approach. 

The why behind Ayurveda

I come from a scientific background being an engineer. So things had to make logical sense. While there is a following for Ayurveda from Religion, Spirituality and Yoga; I wasn’t practicing any of these disciplines. I wanted to deconstruct the rationale behind her treatment from first principles. I had so many questions! 

Why was she being given certain kinds of food like rice and moong dal? 

Popular western diet discourages carb rich foods so why would a patient be given rice and lentils.

What was the purpose of the oil treatments? 

She wasn’t at a spa; she was at a serious, full service government backed Ayurvedic hospital. 

Why were they prescribing whole plant based formulations? 

I am sure the big pharma companies had already extracted the chemical compounds in these herbs or created synthetic alternatives. So why would these whole plant based herbs and decoctions be necessary?

I started to browse online and found summaries of the herbal formulations/ medicines that she was prescribed. A list of ingredients and what type of conditions they are suited for. The herb names were in Sanskrit and English; a few seemed familiar because we also use them in Indian cooking. The herbs often made references to ‘Vata’, ‘Pitta’ and ‘Kapha pacification but I didn’t know what these were. 

I became motivated to understand the fundamental principles behind Ayurveda so that I could better follow my mother’s course of treatment. 

What is Vata, Pitta and Kapha? 

How does it relate to disease? 

I bought Vasant Lad’s book ‘Ayurveda: The Science of Self Healing’ which shed light on the fundamental principles.  For example, all matter is composed of the 5 elements in nature (Space, Air, Fire, Earth and Water). The qualitative properties of matter and the role of Doshas or functional energy principles in our body (Vata, Pitta, Kapha). It was fascinating! 

Could it really be a science?

I began to wonder if Ayurveda could truly be a science. 

The approach is based on first principles: qualitative analysis, observation, testing and evidence. For example, all matter is categorized into 20 opposing properties (light versus heavy, dry versus moist etc). Space is light and Earth is heavy. Air is drying and Water is moist. And since our body is composed of the same 5 elements in nature (Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth), we manifest similar qualities in our body. Once you reduce every physical substance down to the 5 elements and its respective qualitative properties, things begin to make sense. Literally translating the Sanskrit word ‘Ayurveda’ – it is the science of life. I was hooked. 

Back home in San Francisco after my India trip, I continued to be smitten by this ancient, 5000 year old science that I had stumbled upon. It has been around for so long and yet it was completely new to me. While the book was great to get started, it was only a primer. There were so many things that I wasn’t fully understanding. I had the feeling that I was simply skimming the surface. I needed a teacher, a guide, a community of like minded people to really help me understand these concepts in depth. That’s how I came across several good Ayurveda schools in US including Kerala Ayurveda Academy in the San Francisco Bay Area. Shortly, I got started with their year long, entry level Ayurveda Wellness Counselor program. 

My goal with this program was to understand the Ayurvedic concepts and apply them to my own life. This knowledge would allow me to take charge of my own health, my family’s health so that we could all lead a healthier, happier life. 

In the next post, I will talk about three basic principles about Ayurveda that made a significant shift in my understanding of what was going on in my body. See you there!