Alternative Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

By

Christopher Iliades, MD

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Medications approved to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are effective. While there's no substitute treatment that can replace your RA drugs, some alternative treatments may help when used in addition to your medication.  

Be sure to talk with your doctor before starting any new treatment. Here's what you need to know to start that conversation.

Dietary Supplements

There is no firm evidence to support treating RA with diet supplements. However, some supplements may help you feel better overall.

You need to be careful when taking supplements. Some supplements can affect medicines you take. This includes RA drugs and medication for any other health condition. So talk with your doctor about supplements and be sure to ask what dosage is right for you.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids. Most people refer to these as fish oil supplements. You get omega-3’s by eating fatty fish like salmon or by taking supplements. They may help relieve morning stiffness and pain. One study found that people with RA who took fish oil supplements used fewer nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are used to treat the inflammation and pain caused by RA.

  • Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). This is an omega-6 fatty acid found in some plant oils. Some studies suggest that GLA helps fight pain and inflammation. Side effects can include headache and digestive discomfort.

  • SAMe. This supplement comes from a chemical that occurs naturally in the body. It's used in Europe for treating arthritis pain. However, more research is needed on SAMe. It can cause stomach upset. It also can be expensive. Be sure to talk with your doctor before taking SAMe.

Mind-Body Techniques

These practices use the mind to overcome physical problems, like RA symptoms. These are usually very safe practices. Many people find them helpful and effective.

  • Mindfulness meditation. This teaches you to relax. You do this by refocusing your attention with purposeful breathing. Studies show that meditation can be a good way to cope with pain. Biofeedback and relaxation training are other options to help lessen the mental and physical symptoms of RA.

  • Tai chi. This is an ancient form of exercise. It combines focused breathing, concentration, and movements that enhance flexibility. Studies of tai chi for RA show that it can boost your mood and quality of life. It also can make you stronger.

  • Yoga. This is a popular mind-body exercise. Gentle types of yoga are best for RA. Studies have found that the gentle movements can ease joint pain. Yoga can also help you move more easily.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is part of ancient Chinese medicine. For centuries it has been used to heal a variety of ailments. Acupuncture involves placing very thin needles at specific points on the body. Where the needles go depends on what you are trying to do.  Only a few studies have looked at the effects of acupuncture on RA. Some showed benefits. Others did not. But acupuncture is generally safe and could be worth checking out.

Herbal Remedies

Herbal remedies sound "natural," so it's tempting to assume they are safe. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate herbs the way it regulates drugs. Herbs do not have to comply with the same safety and labeling rules.

Also, RA experts say there's not enough proof from studies to know whether herbs will truly help people with RA. Here's what they do know:

  • Boswellia, ginger, green tea, and turmeric. These herbs and spices have shown some ability to fight inflammation. However, those results come from studies on animals. It's not known whether they will work the same way on people.

  • Willow bark extracts. These herbs contain chemicals that are similar to the pain reliever ibuprofen. The downside is that they might irritate your stomach. They also can increase your risk for bleeding.

  • Chinese thunder god vine. Studies on people show that this herb may help ease pain and swelling. However, it can cause serious side effects including hair loss, menstrual changes, skin rash, and infertility in men. Because of this, health experts do not recommend it.

Key Takeaways

  • Alternative treatments should not replace traditional medications for RA. Instead, consider them an add-on treatment.

  • Some dietary supplements may help reduce inflammation.

  • Mind-body practices like tai chi and yoga can help you better cope with RA. They might help movement too.

  • Always talk with your doctor about any alternative treatment you are thinking of using.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 29, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Rheumatoid Arthritis and Complementary Health Approaches. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. National Institutes of Health. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/RA/getthefacts.htm
  2. Herbal Remedies. Supplements and Acupuncture for Arthritis. American College of Rheumatology. http://www.rheumatology.org/i-am-a/patient-caregiver/treatments/herbal-remedies-supplements-acupuncture-for-arthritis

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