It is the view of one very old medical tradition that the four factors that aggravate the arthritis condition are the cold, being damp, extreme heat and a strong wind. In Chinese Medicine it is believed that anyone suffering from arthritis must avoid these four situations if at all possible and stay warm.
The following are some hints and tips that as a sufferer of arthritis and teacher of Tai Chi I have found useful for keeping warm and helping to keep as full a range of movement as possible. There is more to staying warm than just running up an even bigger heating bill, the following ways are all tried and tested and while not being a magic cure they can help to slow down the progress of what can be a crippling disease.
From the bottom up.
Common sense or just plain experience would say if you are prone to arthritis stay warm but the Chinese view is more specific in recommending to especially keep the bottom half of you warm. Most of us have probably had that experience of getting in a hot but shallow bath on a cold day and been surprised at how it has warmed us up generally. Recently I was unable to close a bathroom window due to arthritis. I looked at the shallow but hot bath and the trees bending in the strong wind outside and wondered if taking the plunge was really a good idea? I can’t say that I was uncomfortably hot and I did keep the bath brief but I didn’t get cold and the fact was proved again that it’s from the hips down that it’s essential to keep warm.
Some people who live in Mongolia combat the cold and almost continual cutting wind by wearing not one but two pairs of long johns, apparently they only come off on a really hot day! The former resident of Mongolia who revealed this to me had a strange reaction to seeing women in mini skirts in anything less than scorching weather.He would cringe in pain at the sight of long bare legs and sadly say they will have varicose veins when they are older, some people see everything in the long term Even long legs!
Somehow it’s easy not to notice that your legs are cold and with the price of heating a home rocketing getting long johns has to be a good investment. Arthritis is a long term enemy and anything that can moderate its eroding effects is another weapon on your side.
From the inside out.
As well as ideally being in a warm environment when ever possible their is another warmth that we can generate and it’s for free. The joint loosening exercises taught in Tai Chi must be done in moderation at first especially if you suffer from Arthritis. The rule of thumb once they have become part of your routine is to keep doing each exercise until the joint that is being worked becomes noticeably warm. These exercises are done in a smooth circular manner and can be done very slowly avoiding the risk of further joint damage. Although there are about twenty main joint loosening exercises there are many more than this so there is plenty to choose from. If you are chair bound some of them can be modified to be done while you are sat down. When Bruce Lee was in hospital even while laid on a bed he was doing exercises to speed his recovery such was his fighting spirit. The ideal exercise program puts your body through its full range of movement regularly. Your range of movement may already be impaired to a greater or lesser degree, we are all different so just do what you can comfortably do. If you do what you can regularly and you will see some improvement over time but listen to your body and don’t over do it, build up what you do gradually.
Ginger, an ancient medicinal herb.
Prized by the Romans and used in Chinese medicine for two thousand years, the medicinal benefits of ginger have long been known. As well as being used as an anti inflammatory, ginger has a warming effect on the body. It can be taken as a tea and is easily prepared by adding grated ginger to boiling water. Ginger tea can be taken up to four times a day and it’s warming effect is felt straight away and by the way don’t add milk! If your not keen on the taste at first try adding honey and remembering that this is something that will help you to keep warm and possibly reduce swelling.
Stay warm it will help keep the weight off.
Anyone who has kept animals outside knows that they need more food when the temperature drops. We humans are no different, being cold and hungry go together. Extra weight on damaged joints means extra pain when you move hence you move less often get cold more often and eat more often, a vicious circle indeed.
It’s very tempting when you are in a lot of pain to get caught up in a good film or some other distraction and switch off from your physical situation. The stiffness that creeps over the body of the Arthritis sufferer who spends too long, body locked, in front of the computer is a reminder that we need to keep moving. It can be hard to make the effort to get up and stretch if you are sat for a long time when you know that when you stand up it’s going to hurt. However if you do get up and do some light exercise you will feel better for it because your body needs to move. They say that if you have a wood fire at home you warm yourself up twice, once when you chop the wood and once when you sit by the fire afterwards. The last thing you want to be doing with arthritis damaged joints is to be swinging an axe into solid wood but the idea behind this bit of folklore is valid. Sustained movement is as valuable way of getting warm as sitting in front of a roaring fire. Low impact forms of exercise that do not put too much strain on the joints of someone suffering from arthritis are the best way to keep moving.
Learning from nature, keeping warm and stretching.
Animals know the importance of staying warm indeed it is often crucial to their survival. Feeling the direction of the wind and knowing the best place to shelter from it is essential to creatures great and small.The cat that lies on your lap is probably there because of your body heat rather than to show affection in the same matter of fact way that it will crawl under the recently parked car that is still warm.
At the first sign that there is a chance for a walk what does the dog do? Quite often a dog will stretch twice when it gets up, once from the front legs and once from the back. All animals, the hunters and the hunted, have to be capable of instant explosive movement day or night if they are not to miss a meal or worse be a meal. To always be capable of instant action the body has to be regularly stretched and kept warm if at all possible, the ability to respond that split second more quickly to a threat can be the difference between life and death. Because animals are not so caught up in thinking as we humans are they are more aware of their environment and listen more to what their body is saying that it needs at that time. A major part of Tai Chi training is to develop what is called listening energy, maybe this is just regaining some of what animals have never lost?
The idea of regularly stretching is easier to except in principle than it is to actually put into practice. So how do you make the idea of regularly stretching to help counteract the stiffness that we sufferers of arthritis know only too well into a regular habit. One way to make stretching into a regular habit is to link it to something that you already do routinely. If you are a tea drinker for instance why not use those few minutes of waiting for the kettle to boil to fit in a bit of stretching? The key to effective stretching if you have arthritis is little and often, this way you will see an improvement but are less likely to over do it.
Tai Chi listening energy.
Listening energy is used in many ways. In pushing hands, the Tai Chi equivalent of sparring, listening energy can be used to feel when the opponent is loosing balance or detecting that slight tensing as they prepare to hit you. To really improve your posture listening energy will alert you when you are out of alignment and in a similar way it can cause you to notice when your body is starting to become cold or is getting tense and needs to stretch. It takes practice to develop listening energy and it is a quality that you can always get better at.
Grow antennas and not horns
~ Martial arts saying.
The Tai Chi form.
The casual observer asked to sum up Tai Chi after seeing the Tai Chi form demonstrated may well do so in two words, slow and controlled. A system of exercise that is preformed in a very concentrated and controlled manner is a very safe way to put damaged joints through their full range of movements while avoiding further injury. It is surprising how a seemingly sedate form of exercise can really warm you up even when done outside on a cold day. Many of the old traditional Tai Chi forms are very long taking twenty minutes or more to do and requiring quite a lot of space. Short forms have been developed in recent times that are popular with Westerners and some can be done in an average size front room.
Chen the oldest style of Tai Chi, has a set of moves called silk reeling exercises that can be done one at a time without moving off the spot. One silk reeling exercise can allow you to experience the same feeling that is gained by doing the full form.
Good and bad habits.
We all know how hard a bad habit is to shake off. It can be over eating drugs or alcohol abuse not being able to give up a bad habit costs people their lives. Good habits can be almost as hard to keep up and you can slip out of them without even noticing, suddenly you haven’t done that new daily good habit in a week! It says a lot about how hard it is to change ourselves when most New Year resolutions do not make it till the end of January. The greatest strength is to know your weakness so don’t be surprised when you find that all your good intentions have not been enough to firmly establish a new habit on the first try. When you see that you have not followed through on keeping up a new arthritis combating habit don’t beat yourself up just start again and be glad that you noticed that you had let it slip.
The Middle Way.
It can seem like the final kick in the teeth when having just got through a cold wet winter the heat of summer causes a flare up in the arthritis sufferer. It does seem that Chinese Medicine must be right when you find yourself suffering from swollen joints because of it being a very hot summers day or night. For some arthritis sufferers extreme heat is worse for them than a cold wet windy day. We can’t control the weather but what we can regulate to a point being warm and our attitude to exercise. If you have arthritis you have to be very disciplined in your approach to exercise. While other people can get away with over doing exercise one day and then not bothering to do anything for a few days this is not the case if you have arthritis. Your body will need to be stretched every day and if you miss a few days it will be best to start again moderately and build up again slowly.
Being over enthusiastic about exercise when you have arthritis is almost as bad as not bothering at all. Just as it’s best to avoid extreme weather when possible and stay warm so with our approach to exercise its best to avoid extremes and find the middle way.