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Arthritis: Understanding alternative treatments

A group of aging adults participating in a tai chi class.

Some people want to try natural and alternative remedies for arthritis. But are they helpful? Are they safe?

Are you considering trying an alternative remedy to ease your arthritis pain? If so, you'll want to do your homework.

First, consult with your doctor. They can tell you if the remedy in question is safe and if it will cause bad interactions with your other medicines. If you do decide to use alternative medicines, remember that they're not meant to replace your usual treatments. Instead, think of them as a complement to your regular routine.

You'll also want to know if it actually works before you spend your time and money on it. Let's go through some common alternative remedies and the evidence of their effectiveness for soothing arthritis pain.

Herbs and dietary supplements

There's no proof that herbs and supplements are safer or gentler than conventional medicines, according to the American College of Rheumatology. They aren't regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration either.

And though some may be helpful if your usual medicines aren't helping your arthritis symptoms enough, there's generally no scientific proof to support their use.

For example:

  • The herb thunder god vine may help relieve rheumatoid arthritis (RA) pain. But it can have serious side effects, including an increased risk of osteoporosis. Its side effects may outweigh its benefits, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
  • Studies of chondroitin and glucosamine supplements have had mixed results. Some studies have suggested that these products help relieve arthritis pain. But large government studies found that they don't. If you decide to try chondroitin or glucosamine, keep in mind that they may interfere with the blood-thinning drug warfarin.
  • Fish oil supplements that contain omega-3 oils may somewhat improve RA symptoms. Side effects may include an upset stomach.
  • Other supplements, such as willow bark extract and cat's claw, haven't been studied much. That makes it hard to know whether or not they work, the NCCIH reports.

Massage

Limited research shows that massage can help ease knee osteoarthritis (OA) and RA of the arms and shoulders. Massage is generally safe. But make sure the massage therapist is familiar with treating people with arthritis, whose joints can be sensitive to vigorous pressure.

Acupuncture

With acupuncture, thin needles are inserted through the skin at specific points. Research shows it can relieve OA pain, including knee pain. In recent studies, acupuncture worked better than no treatment but no better than simulated acupuncture, suggesting that its benefits in OA may be due to a placebo effect.

Acupuncture is considered safe when performed by a trained practitioner using sterile needles.

Yoga and tai chi

Because yoga improves strength and flexibility, it may benefit people with arthritis. But more studies are needed to know for sure. On the other hand, several studies have found that tai chi (a traditional Chinese practice that combines certain poses and movements with breathing, mental focus and relaxation) may help improve knee OA pain, stiffness and mobility.

Both yoga and tai chi are generally safe. But they may need to be adapted to make them safe for people with arthritis.

Cannabidiol (CBD) oil

CBD is a chemical from cannabis that does not cause a high. Some preliminary research suggests it may help with arthritis pain. But human studies have yielded mixed results. Laws governing CBD vary from state to state. And it is still considered an illegal drug under federal law.

Many other alternative therapies are promoted as arthritis treatments, but in many cases, there is not enough evidence to support their use. These include aromatherapy, copper bracelets and music therapy. Again, if you have questions about any alternative remedy, find out what your doctor thinks.

More alternative medicine facts

Alternative and complementary medicine isn't just for arthritis. Test your knowledge of alternative medicine with this quiz.

reviewed 9/6/2019

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