To Your Health

If the mineral gallium is good for lame horses, as I have heard, is it also good for humans with joint problems?

Q. If the mineral gallium is good for lame horses, as I have heard, is it also good for humans with joint problems?

A. Gallium has been proposed as a cure for a type of lameness in horses known as navicular disease, and it seems to work well. Despite extensive publications written on the subject, navicular disease remains a confusing problem to veterinarians. It is often treated with anti-inflammatory medications even though it may not be an inflammatory disease. When the condition affects a valuable horse, there is considerable motivation to help the horse recover by any means possible.

Horse owners treating their animals with gallium nitrate noted that their own arthritis symptoms in their hands diminished and sometimes disappeared, presumably as a result of handling the gallium nitrate solution. This observation prompted George Eby of Austin, Texas, to use a gallium nitrate solution topically to successfully reduce pain in two people with arthritis. A single 90-120-minute soaking of the affected joint in a 14% gallium nitrate solution resulted in months of relief from arthritis pain.

For various reasons, including a terrible taste, oral use of gallium nitrate is emphatically discouraged. Injectable gallium nitrate has been approved for use by physicians in the United States to reduce the buildup of calcium that occurs with some cancer. Gallium has also been used to treat Paget's disease (an abnormal bone growth), osteopenia (early osteoporosis), and osteoporosis. At therapeutic doses from physicians it has few side effects, and topical application should be even safer.

Researchers suspect that gallium counteracts the harm done to the body by aluminum, since the two minerals are similar in many ways. The role of aluminum toxicity in bone disease, although not widely publicized, is well documented in patients with kidney failure. Even without kidney disease, we all retain about 4% of the aluminum we ingest, and bone aluminum content increases steadily with age. In addition to its effect on calcium metabolism, gallium inhibits the body's production of a major chemical messenger called "interleukin-6 beta" that promotes inflammation. IL-6b is an important part of our immune response, but when it overreacts, which happens in arthritis, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and several other degenerative diseases, it can make life miserable. Gallium's ability to tone down this inflammatory response in much the same way as cortisone does, but without side effects, makes it a valuable tool in arthritis treatment.

Perhaps the best news about gallium is that from it costs only $80 per pint, which is enough for one topical treatment, and one topical treatment may be all you would need for a year or more for relief of pain. If further research on the benefits of gallium for arthritis pain indicates that it is as successful for arthritis pain as it has been for treatment of navicular disease, gallium may turn out to be the answer to the prayers of millions of people.

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