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31 October 2011
Here’s an impressive statistic for you; around 80 per cent of people over the age of 50 have osteoarthritis, that’s a bigger take-up than either Twitter or Facebook! No wonder then that there is such excitement when a treatment for arthritis comes along and such concern when the drugs that treat the disease are found to have serious side-effects, as has happened in recent times. It is of great interest then when a gentle remedy such as the omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are found to not only relieve the symptoms but also slow the progression of osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis is the wear and tear form of arthritis. In its literal sense arthritis is an inflammation of the joints but there can be many causes underlying that manifestation. In rheumatoid arthritis for instance the body’s immune system attacks the joint capsule causing massive inflammation and pain. In gout crystals of uric acid deposit in joints and rub and generally cause problems. In osteoarthritis however, the primary cause is wearing away of the protective cartilage pads in joints.
Fish oil is a source of omega-3 fatty acids and these omega-3s have a known and established anti-inflammatory effect. So the benefit of omega-3 supplementation in rheumatoid arthritis is not surprising and also well supported by research. The benefit for osteoarthritis though is not so clear. Although some inflammation is present in osteoarthritis, it is not what drives the disease, so how effective will omega-3s be in treating the condition?
This question was answered in a recent study on guinea pigs who, like humans, naturally develop arthritis (and incidentally, like humans, are the only mammals not to produce their own vitamin C!). The way in which guinea pigs develop osteoarthritis is very similar to the way humans do which is why they are a viable way to study the problem.
The results compared guinea pigs fed omega-3 oils in their diet to guinea pigs not fed omega-3 oils. Those given omega-3s had a 50 per cent reduction in the incidence of arthritis. The additional and exciting finding was that the omega-3 s seemed to not only relieve the symptoms but to slow the progression of the disease itself. The breakdown of collagen was stopped by omega-4 supplementation as was the loss of molecules that give cartilage its shock-absorbing properties.
All of that means that omega-3s may not only prevent osteoarthritis but may also control arthritis that is already established.
That’s good news for all of us, including those arthritic guinea pigs who thought their tap-dancing days were behind them.