Arthritis can turn everyday activities into difficult tasks. It’s easy to get frustrated if your usual treatments don’t do enough to help. If this happens, the many alternative therapies advertised as treatments for arthritis may start to sound appealing—and understandably so.
“People often look for something they believe is simple and natural to make them feel better,” says Patience White, MD, former vice president of public health policy and advocacy for the Arthritis Foundation.
With some alternative treatments, giving them a try can be a reasonable plan, Dr. White says. But before you start, you should protect both your wallet and your health by taking the time to learn about the medicine and the practitioner who’s providing it.
Among the most popular alternative treatments for arthritis are herbal medicines and dietary supplements. These products are marketed as natural remedies, implying that they are gentler and safer than the chemicals in conventional medicines.
In fact, many of these products are far from safe. Herbal medicines contain dozens of chemicals from plant extracts that can have dangerous side effects. And since supplements and herbal medicines aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, you can’t be sure what you’re taking.
You also can’t be sure that the treatment will actually work. For example, many people take supplements of glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Yet large government studies have found that these supplements are no more helpful than a placebo.
For any supplement, potential benefits must be weighed against potential risks.
Fish oil has some anti-inflammatory properties and may relieve some arthritis pain. But in high doses it may interact with medicines such as blood thinners and drugs for high blood pressure. And studies show that the traditional Chinese medicine thunder god vine may fight inflammation and help with rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. But long-term use can cause serious side effects such as decreased bone mineral density in women. More research is needed to determine if thunder god vine is both safe and effective.
Researchers continue to study these and other substances, including green tea and ginger. But so far studies haven’t found a natural therapy that beats the traditional medicine that is currently available for arthritis.
“It would be great if we had an alternative therapy as good as the drugs on the market, but we don’t,” Dr. White says.
However, she gives conditional approval to using natural treatments, depending on the answers to these questions:
- Have you checked with your doctor first? Some herbs or supplements may interact with your regular medicines or contain harmful ingredients.
- Is the product from a reputable manufacturer? If you don’t know, ask your doctor or pharmacist.
- Does the label claim to cure arthritis or advise you to stop taking your regular medicines? If so, don’t use the product.
- Can you afford it? These remedies typically aren’t covered by insurance, and some can be expensive.
Research shows that massage can help ease arthritis pain and stiffness. It temporarily increases blood flow to painful muscles and decreases stress hormones. And natural pain-killing endorphins increase with massage.
If you’re considering massage, ask these questions:
- Is the therapist trained to work with people who have arthritis? Special care must be taken with sore joints.
- When you have the massage, does it hurt? If so, ask your therapist to adjust his or her technique.
- Does your insurance pay for massage? If so, how many visits does it cover?
This therapy involves inserting needles into specific places on the body. According to Dr. White, some studies show that acupuncture helps to ease arthritis pain in the knee. Other research suggests that acupuncture does only as well as placebo treatments that mimic acupuncture but don’t put the needles in the specific acupuncture spots. However, even this limited pain relief provides some benefit.
People who want to try acupuncture and can afford it should ask these questions first:
- Is the therapist licensed? Acupuncture is safe when done by a trained practitioner.
- How many treatments does the therapist think you will need? Insurance sometimes covers acupuncture but may limit the number of treatments or total cost.
Do your own research
Whatever alternative therapy you try, you should do it systematically over time, according to Dr. White.
“Have a clear idea of how you will judge if it’s working,” she says. “And do it long enough that the natural fluctuations of the disease don’t interfere with the results.”
For example, keeping a pain diary can help you judge the success of a treatment. Try the new therapy for several months, and compare your beginning and ending pain scores.
Doing this can help you decide whether to continue with an alternative therapy. Even a small improvement may make the expense worthwhile for some people.
Your research also should include talking with your doctor about how alternative treatments can interact with your current therapies.
“Tell your doctor about everything you’re using,” Dr. White says. Natural treatments for arthritis may not always work, but they should never do you harm.