About half of all Americans over age 65 have been diagnosed with some form of arthritis. My creaky knees and stiffening fingers tell me I’m part of that group, even though I’ve never asked a doctor to confirm it. My current physician’s career ambitions seem to be solely focused on convincing me to come to his office and get my blood pressure checked. Arthritis has never come up during our sporadic and awkward conversations.
And that’s OK, because there are not a lot of treatment options that don’t involve joint replacement, which carries its own set of risks. Typically, doctors will prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers that address the symptoms but ignore the root cause — degeneration of the cartilage that lubricates the joint.
A team of Swiss and Norwegian researchers believes there’s a better approach. Last week, they released the results of lab tests suggesting that a substance extracted from the stems of brown algae — polysaccharide alginate — may slow the pace of cartilage degeneration at the cellular level. When they modified the alginate with sulfate groups and injected it in dissolved form into cartilage cells, they found the alginate sulfate significantly reduced oxidative stress in the cell. And the more sulfate they added to the alginate molecules, the less stress that occurred. The substance also suppressed the inflammatory response.
It appears the alginate sulfate is similar enough to the cellular makeup of cartilage that it fortifies it against the forces of nature. “The hope is that they can even stop this degeneration,” Markus Rottmar, a member of the research team, said in a statement.
It’s a long way from playing with cell cultures to testing alginate sulfate on human knees, of course, so you might want to wait awhile before you ask your doctor for an injection — or stock up on brown-algae futures. As with any of these medical “breakthroughs,” there’s likely to be some unintended consequences.
I’ll take my cues from My Lovely Wife, who’s been dealing with a cartilage-free right knee for the better part of the last 40 years by developing a stronger connection between her brain and her body. Feldenkrais training showed her how to become more attuned to the tiny nuances in her gait that caused her pain. A regular yoga practice increased her strength and flexibility while helping her to mindfully respect her body’s limitations.
She’s also tough as nails.
Here’s hoping that something therapeutic eventually comes from the brown-algae gambit, because not everyone can overcome a bum joint the way MLW has. I might even be willing to give it a try if my aging knees continue to degenerate, though that would require a visit to my doctor — and another conversation about my blood pressure.