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Healing Stories: Integrative Approaches to Rheumatoid Arthritis and Ankylosing

Dr. Mari Ricker

In the Healing Stories series, providers, practitioners, and researchers share stories of resilience and transformation through Integrative Medicine. The accounts below come from Dr. Mari Ricker, Director of Integrative Medicine in Residency at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine.

I am Mari Ricker, a professor of Family and Community Medicine and the Director of Integrative Medicine in Residency at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine. I often encounter individuals with unique health challenges. I will be sharing two stories.

The first story revolves around a 61-year-old woman grappling with joint issues and an unexpected diagnosis.

The patient, a talented artist and craftsperson, reached out to me due to increasing swelling in her joints. She described her struggles, passion for baking delicious cookies, and admission of inconsistency in adhering to a balanced diet. Recognizing the importance of understanding her condition, we began with diagnostic X-rays, which revealed joint erosion. Despite her overall good health, it was clear that her hand pain was a significant concern.

Further medical tests confirmed what we suspected: rheumatoid arthritis. The rheumatologist offered disease-modifying agents as a potential solution, but the patient was apprehensive about the associated risks. She committed to try everything else first and sought my guidance.

Together, we embarked on a journey to explore integrative approaches to managing her condition. I formulated a holistic plan tailored to her needs. This involved incorporating anti-inflammatory herbs and supplements, such as holy basil, ginger, turmeric, rosemary, barberry, and Chinese skullcap, into her daily routine. Simultaneously, we focused on making substantial dietary changes. Sugar was eliminated, and dairy consumption was significantly reduced, aligning her diet with an anti-inflammatory profile.

Over three to four months, the patient experienced a remarkable transformation. Although the joint swelling persisted, her hand pain dissipated, signifying significant progress. Eager to gauge the effectiveness of our approach, the patient returned to her rheumatologist for further evaluation. The results were astonishing: her inflammatory markers had substantially decreased.

The rheumatologist concurred that, if her symptoms remained under control, and disease did not progress, there was no immediate need for potent disease-modifying drugs. This outcome was a powerful incentive for the patient to maintain her healing journey. She was determined to safeguard her hands, essential tools for her artistic pursuits. Her commitment to this endeavor included the complete removal of sugar from her diet, halting the progression of her debilitating condition.

This story highlights the impact of integrative medicine in addressing complex health challenges. It showcases the patient's resilience and dedication to preserving her health and creativity. Through our collaboration, she has found relief from her condition and renewed hope for a future filled with artistic expression and well-being.

The following story involves a 28-year-old man. The patient faced health challenges, battling ankylosing spondylitis and severe carpal tunnel syndrome. His livelihood depended on manual labor, making it exceedingly difficult for him to embrace the concept of "rest." To manage his debilitating pain, he had resorted to short bursts of narcotics, contemplating the prospect of long-term medication use. It was during this critical juncture that we engaged in a heartfelt conversation about the long-term consequences of relying on pain medication.

I outlined a spectrum of options for the patient, shedding light on various pathways to alleviate his suffering. I recognized that diet was pivotal in his overall health, so I delved into dietary modifications. The patient's eating habits, characterized by an excess of red meat and fast food, mirrored those of his family, including his wife and their four children. I recommended a shift towards an anti-inflammatory diet, emphasizing the reduction of sugar and red meat consumption.

Two years later, I noticed the patient on my schedule, and admittedly, I felt a hint of nervousness. I feared he might once again request pain medication, a conversation that had been both challenging and frustrating in the past. However, as he entered my office, his demeanor radiated a sense of tranquility and hope.

The patient shared remarkable news - he was pain-free. His ankylosing spondylitis no longer required intervention, and his wrists were devoid of pain. The transformation was attributed to a profound shift in lifestyle, particularly in dietary choices. With unwavering commitment, the patient and his family embraced a predominantly vegetarian diet. Despite limited financial resources, they had cultivated a small piece of land, establishing their garden and crafting their meals from scratch. These changes had unfolded over several years.

The impact of their dietary overhaul extended beyond the patient himself. Their children experienced improved sleep patterns and heightened energy levels, a testament to the power of early adoption of healthier habits. The patient couldn't help but express profound gratitude for the positive influence that this dietary shift had on his family's well-being, as he had grown up with dietary habits that he now believed had contributed to the development of his debilitating conditions.

This story exemplifies the transformative potential of integrative medicine. Through dedication, the patient and his family harnessed the healing power of a shift in dietary choices, transcending the limitations of their financial circumstances. Their journey is an inspiring reminder of the profound impact of lifestyle modifications on individuals and their families, instilling a renewed sense of hope and vitality.