Four in the morning, four more at night. That’s eight big, mustard-yellow capsules every day. They contain nothing but turmeric, a spice. But for Jerry they are medicine. He loves the stuff says it changed his life.
Now this sort of thing is not uncommon; I’d guess 20 to 30 percent of my patients are into some type of supplements or “nutriceuticals.” But Jerry stands out. He’s a conservative, older guy from that generation of men who were most definitely not ‘in touch with their bodies’. He’s practical, worldly wise and skeptical. He’s not interested in any other remedies or practices He has, in fact, gotten so many friends and acquaintances to use the stuff that it’s sold out of the stores where he buys it.
But what got me interested in Jerry’s turmeric wasn’t his testimonials or even his personality it was seeing him bounce back from surgery.
Jerry had two bad hips; the joints didn’t form quite right as he grew up. They degenerated and started to hurt as he entered his sixties. When he first started coming to me, I gave him the usual anti-inflammatory medications we use for arthritis pain. He had no side effects, but he wasn’t helped much either, so he stopped the pills and lived with the pain. Then he found turmeric.
Soon enough, there was no pain at all. And his lower back and hands, which ached before, were also now pain-free. So I was curious last year, at age 73, when he came in and told me he was ready for a hip replacement. “It’s just so stiff” is all he would say. He certainly had the limp, the trouble with stairs and the slow rise from a chair that you see in folks with hip arthritis. His x-ray showed the bone-on-bone erosion and plenty of spurring; his examination showed the profound loss of motion you would also expect. Everything said “just do a hip replacement” except for that one, cardinal feature pain.
He denied it. Even when I did the twisting maneuver we use to see if it’s the hip that hurts, there was no wince, no ouch. I had never done the operation for anyone without pain. I explained this. And as reasonable a person as he is, he still wanted a new hip, “to get rid of the stiffness.”
Some kind of denial going on here, was all I could think. I made sure he knew full well what the surgery would entail. He still wanted it. So I did the operation. “Can I keep up with the turmeric in the hospital” he asked. I saw no reason why not. That’s when I actually saw the big yellow capsules, on his bedside table. And when I first gave them any serious thought.
Now alternative medicine doctors and orthopedic surgeons are miles apart on what eating plants can actually fix. Scurvy, nightblindness, constipation and… oh hunger, are the problems they tell us plants can cure in medical school. Psychosomatic factors are said to underlie all the other “benefits.” But I looked and found two well-done scientific papers studying the effects of turmeric on a group of patients who I thought should be far less likely to be affected by psychosomatic factors. Because they were rats.
At the University of Arizona, researchers led by endocrinologist Janet Funk injected a bacterial substance known to cause joint inflammation into the bellies of the rodents. If they gave them turmeric first there was far less joint swelling produced. A specific active ingredient of the turmeric worked better still. A rigorous protocol and convincing pictures of the rats’ normal and swollen joints convinced me there was a real effect. Further experiments by the group even showed how turmeric turns down inflammation, by blocking production of the protein that turns on the gene that tells tiny blood vessels to grow.
And you just can’t research food supplements without bumping into the affable Dr. Andrew Weil . Yes, he has a dog in the fight, with a financial interest in turmeric-containing products, which have, he strongly claims, benefits ranging from fighting Alzheimers, to breast cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and psoriasis. Too many to be true Maybe. But I also know this: all of these diseases, like Jerry’s arthritis, share a common need: they depend on the formation of new blood vessels basically, on specific local instances of inflammation. And that’s what Janet Funk’s papers showed the turmeric controls. Between Funk and Weill, what I had seen in Jerry was starting to make sense. But it wasn’t the papers that convinced me. It was how Jerry did in the hospital.
Jerry was a post-op marvel. There are some patients in their 70s who surprise us with how quickly they recover from an operation. And yes, we did it the “minimally invasive” way. But Jerry outperformed them all. A week post-op he walked in without a cane, without a limp, got up from a chair faster than I can and showed me a healed surgical wound that looked a month old. The “stiffness” was gone; he now had normal range of motion. Jerry was quite pleased happy with my job but there was also an air of pride or confidence, perhaps victory, about him. He was just so convinced that he had been eased, and sped, through the healing process by turmeric.
I still chalked it up, then at least, to psychology. This worked fine until about six weeks ago, when we did his other hip. He got better even faster. Home the second day. No pain meds. Lots of yellow capsules on the table. I decided to get some for myself.
All doctors, or at least, in my opinion, the good ones, utilize a curious faculty, little discussed, called empathy. Is it real Can one human truly feel what another feels The answer to this lurks in deep waters; the scientific reality of any human sensation is largely unprovable. There are many professional benefits to feeling what your patient feels though: empathy breaks through communication barriers. It often makes patients like you. Sometimes it can tell you when they’re lying. In Jerry’s case it told me this for sure: his hip didn’t hurt. But was it mental or physical
I have since experimented with my own aches and pains. We already had some tumeric in the kitchen. It’s pretty good on pizza, a mustard/curry taste. Seems to help with pain. People I know, it turns out, are already taking the stuff. Same proud, confident, happy reaction to my using it as Jerry’s. And it’s all over the internet. It’s fun being on this sort of team for a change. Devotees of the magic spice are a bit like those of the holy herb a cozy klatch of believers with a strong “us vs. them” perception of the world. Fairly logical, not too rigorous scientifically, very empathetic. Does turmeric really work though Or am I just resonating with Jerry With a lot more respect for the question, and turmeric takers, I will let you know when I figure it out.
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