Joint pain, or Lyme arthritis, is one of the most common chronic Lyme disease symptoms. Lyme-related joint pain can occur anywhere in the body, and each Lyme patient will present arthritic pain patterns differently. This is because Lyme spirochetes can lodge anywhere in the body where collagen, their favorite food source, exists, suggests Stephen Harrod Buhner, herbalist and author of Healing Lyme.
Why do Lyme patients experience joint pain?
Lyme spirochetes are adept at burrowing into cells and intracellular spaces to evade immune detection. Now concealed, they proceed to break down collagenous structures for food. As collagen breaks down, the structures in the body housing spirochetes become inflamed and painful. Joint spaces, for example, are rich in collagen. Both cartilage and synovial fluid are collagenous, and therefore, are great for housing and feeding these destructive bacteria.
Regardless of your Lyme disease symptoms, a cornerstone of treatment should be protecting collagenous structures throughout the body, recommends Buhner. The goal is to make collagen resistant to spirochetes, thus disrupting their food supply and killing them off. Buhner suggests a number of herbs and supplements with this goal in mind. Here are two of the most important for joint pain.
Supplements to Protect and Regenerate Collagenous Structures
1. Japanese Knotweed root
Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) is at the heart of Buhner’s herbal protocol for Lyme disease treatment. (I’ve been drinking knotweed tea for three years now.) Knotweed root effectively shuts down the inflammatory pathways used by Borrelia to break down collagen. Knotweed also supports immune function, improves blood flow, is antimicrobial and a calming agent. It spreads well throughout the body and even crosses the blood-brain barrier (protecting myelin sheaths in the brain as well as the joints). It assists other herbs and drugs in penetrating deep into the body, thus enhancing their effectiveness. Knotweed can be taken as a tea or tincture, or directly as a powder. Ask your doctor for dosage advice.
2. Hyaluronic Acid
Hyaluronic acid, or HA, is a major component of collagenous tissues throughout the body, including synovial fluid and cartilage. HA increases the viscosity of synovial fluid, helping it lubricate and protect the joints. It strengthens cartilage, making it rubbery.
Of course, Lyme spirochetes break down HA — this is a major root cause of joint pain. In cases of Lyme arthritis, Buhner suggests taking an HA supplement, which helps replace what the bacteria are breaking down. Plus, it helps the body replace and heal compromised cartilage and synovial fluid in the joints. As an added measure, herbs that prevent the breakdown of HA, in particular echinacea, can be beneficial, too.
More Ways to Lessen Lyme-Related Joint Pain
Beyond supplementing to support and protect the joints, there are other practices you can use to lessen joint pain symptoms. Both improve the movement of fluids in the body — assisting with detoxification and lowering inflammation.
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From my personal experience, nothing feels as good as a long, restorative, time-out in the sauna. There is quite a bit of research to back up sauna use to alleviate chronic pain. Saunas increase circulation, assisting the body in removing inflammation and healing joint spaces. Sweating is also an excellent way to detox, and it doesn’t tax the liver or kidneys — which are often overburdened already during Lyme disease recovery.
Infrared saunas are especially good for improving circulation, as the heat penetrates deeper into tissue. I use one at a local Korean spa. Go slowly as you experiment with time in the sauna making sure you tolerate it well. Work up to 30 minutes using the sauna as often as you like. Eventually, you’ll sweat profusely.
4. Rolling fascia with a foam roller
Joint pain often radiates throughout the body by inflaming fascia (connective tissue including muscle sheaths, tendons and ligaments). Whole fascial patterns can become inflamed and painful, severely limiting mobility. Though it can be very frustrating not to be able to exercise when you are in pain, there are ways to move that won’t harm your joints or connective tissue, which will help to move inflammation out of your system and relieve your pain a bit. One of my favorites is rolling.
The easiest tool for rolling out tight or inflamed fascia is a foam roller. They are cheap, and available online and in sports stores. I have quite a few in my Pilates studio, and use them daily on my clients and myself. You can also roll with specialized balls, but they hurt a little more, and you might want a teacher to guide you.
You can use a foam roller anywhere on your body. Pick the areas where you have pain, and try looking up videos online on how to roll them out. The pressure from the roller moves fluids like blood and lymph, releasing inflammation and blockages from sore fascia. It also breaks apart knots in fascia, which again allows fluids to move more freely. In many cases you have to support your body weight in order to roll effectively – and if this works for you it’s actually quite strengthening. (Just be sure to use your core muscles to support your spine.)
After you’ve rolled for a couple of minutes, get up and see if your pain has improved. If it hasn’t, it’s your body’s way of telling you that that particular exercise isn’t right for you. We are all different, so let your body be your guide. If you need more help, try a good Pilates teacher in your area with experience in pain management.
On a personal note: I have found all of the above methods to be very effective in reducing my Lyme related joint and fascial pain. I love my weekly saunas, and appreciate my time spent on the foam roller with my clients — even when it hurts so good. After three years of Lyme treatment, my pain is effectively zero, which I find truly amazing. I hope these tools help you along your healing journey as well.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Healing Lyme, Natural Healing of Lyme Borreliosis and Coinfections Chlamydia and Spotted Fever Rickettsioses. Silver City, NM. Raven Press, 2015.
Masuda A, Koga Y, Hattanmaru M, Minagoe S, Tei C. The effects of repeated thermal therapy for patients with chronic pain. National Institutes of Health Website. DOI: 10.1159/000086319