Are there alternative treatments for rheumatoid arthritis?

Heat provides temporary relief from arthritis pain and is something you can easily do at home as part of your self-care routine. A warm bath, shower, heating pad or hot water bottle will offer relief, so use whatever works best for you. To prevent burns, choose heat sources that gently warm your joints, check your skin regularly and be careful not to fall asleep while applying heat (consider using a timer with an alarm, just in case).

Cold may also provide relief (and some people prefer it to heat), especially when inflammation produces severe pain and joint swelling. Cold can help reduce inflammation and relax painful muscle spasms. Use a proprietary cold pack, or wrap a bag of frozen peas—they mold easily around joints—in a lightweight towel or cloth and apply it to the painful area.

Do not apply heat or cold to areas of poor circulation or numbness.

Here are some alternative therapies for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) pain relief:

  • Relaxation techniques: Deep breathing, guided imagery and visualization (where you focus on "seeing" pleasant pain-free scenes or activities in your mind), and stress reduction help provide some pain relief. Physical therapists can teach relaxation techniques.
  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is an important component of traditional Chinese medicine that involves the insertion of thin needles at specific points, which are mostly along the body's nerve pathways, to improve health. A handful of small studies have been conducted on the use of acupuncture in RA, and the findings do not clearly answer the question of whether or not it works. Individuals who want to use acupuncture should discuss their interest with their healthcare team and only a licensed acupuncturist should be used.
  • Nutritional supplements: A few studies have shown that the nutritional supplement gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and the fish oils eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) may help reduce some of the symptoms of RA. Discuss your interest or questions about such products and reports with your healthcare professional.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a way to enhance an awareness of your body so that you become focused on how your body functions; usually this enhanced focus is turned toward something—such as muscle control—that typically occurs at a subconscious level. During biofeedback, an electronic device provides information about a body function (such as heart rate) so you can learn to control that function. Biofeedback may help people with arthritis learn to relax their muscles. In this case, an electronic device amplifies the sound of a muscle contracting, so you know that the muscle is not relaxed. The therapy is typically learned with the help of a healthcare professional and then may be practiced at home once you have mastered the technique, either with a biofeedback machine or without one.

Some additional techniques under investigation include tai chi (a movement-based form of meditation) and cognitive behavioral therapy (a method of anticipating and preparing yourself for situations and bodily sensations that will cause pain).

Lona Sandon
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Good nutrition is an important part of living well with any chronic disease. It should be thought of as complementing RA medical treatment, not an alternative to it. As a registered dietitian nutritionist and someone who has lived with RA for the past 20 years, I recommend that nutrition therapy start with a mostly plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables and healthy fats from such foods as nuts, seeds and fish. RA is a disease that not only affects the function of joints but can also lead to loss of lean muscle and bone. So it is also important to get adequate lean protein from sources such as salmon, tilapia, tuna, eggs, poultry and yogurt. Protein is essential for both muscle and bone. Bone also needs calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K2, magnesium and other nutrients found in whole foods. Good sources of vitamin D and calcium include milk, fortified milk substitutes, some yogurts and cheese. Vitamin K2 can be found in egg yolks, poultry, lean beef and hard or soft cheese. Nuts, seeds and green vegetables are key sources of magnesium.

Supplements of fish oil or other plant oils may help with mild RA symptoms but typically require you to take much more than what is recommended to get relief. This can get very expensive fast and is not covered by insurance. It is important to remember that these supplements simply address the symptoms. They do not stop the progression and damaging effects of the disease like some of the newer medications now available.

My bottom line: Look for nutrition and nutritional supplements to complement medical care for RA rather than replace it.

Some common complementary and alternative treatments that have shown promise for rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Fish oil—Some studies have found that fish oil supplements may reduce rheumatoid arthritis pain and stiffness
  • Thunder God Vine—Preparations made from the peeled root of this plant are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat many inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, and it may be helpful in treating rheumatoid arthritis
  • Plant oils—The seeds of evening primrose, borage and black currant contain a type of fatty acid that may help with rheumatoid arthritis pain and morning stiffness
  • Mangosteen Juice—A number of laboratory and animal studies suggest that mangosteen has significant anti-inflammatory effects. Unfortunately, at this time, there have been no human studies to determine if these anti-inflammatory effects will be helpful to people with arthritis. However, if you like the taste, enjoy it; it also contains powerful antioxidants which may help prevent cancer and heart disease.

These natural remedies are not without side effects and potential medication interactions (for example they may increase or decrease the effectiveness of a medication you are already taking). Always consult your health care provider before taking any type of supplement, herbal or otherwise.

There are several alternative treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. Slow and easy exercising and stretching-like Tai Chi-may be beneficial. One Chinese treatment for rheumatoid arthritis uses the root of the thunder god vine. Some oils, like fish oil, or oil from the seeds of black currants, evening primrose, or borage can help. These oils may affect certain medications or cause other problems, so ask your doctor before using them.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.