Alternative Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis
There are many nonsurgical treatments for rheumatoid arthritis you may consider to reduce your symptoms—and alternative therapies should not be overlooked. Acupuncture, herbal supplements, massage, relaxation, and mind-body exercises may effectively ease inflammation and joint pain.
If you're considering these treatments, talk with your primary doctor or rheumatologist for a referral or recommendation to an alternative, complementary and integrative practitioner. This title can be confusing—even though alternative medicine and complementary medicine follow the same methods, they are different in that alternative forms are used in place of conventional medicine, whereas complementary treatments are used with conventional medicine.
You may also want to visit our Patients' Guide to Healthy Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis. You'll get tips on diet, exercise, and stress management as you deal with RA on a daily basis.
Below are common alternative treatments for rheumatoid arthritis:
- Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a popular alternative treatment for people with fibromyalgia and back pain, and it may also benefit rheumatoid arthritis sufferers.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice rooted in the belief that everyone has an energy force called the Chi (sometimes spelled Qi, but both are pronounced "chee"). When Chi is blocked or unbalanced, the body may respond with pain and illness. An acupuncturist aims to free up Chi channels, known as meridians, by inserting extremely thin needles into specific points in your body's meridians.
Based on your specific pain, the practitioner will likely insert multiple needles that remain in for about 20-40 minutes.
It has also been suggested that acupuncture triggers the release of endorphins into the blood stream. Simply put, endorphins are your body's natural pain relievers. As such, their release decreases your perception of pain.
Similarly, electroacupuncture uses a needle hooked up to small wires that are connected to light electrical currents to stimulate your meridian points. Heat is often used as part of this therapy.
- Herbal Remedies: Herbal supplements are not proven to ease your RA symptoms, but you might find that they work for you. Some herbal supplements, such as devil's claw, borage seed oil, white willow bark, and boswellia, are thought to decrease inflammation and pain.
A word of caution: Herbs and herbal supplements (eg, pills, teas) may interfere or cause a serious interaction with over-the-counter and/or prescriptions medications. It is always necessary to speak with your primary treating doctor and obtain his/her recommendation before combining drugs.
- Massage: A massage involves the stroking, kneading, and manipulation of soft tissues, such as muscles and ligaments. When received regularly, massage may help reduce pain.
While massage is not a proven treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, it's generally safe and free of side effects. However, it's important that you are not directly massaged at or near any area with arthritis. Massage may also not be right for you if you suffer from osteoporosis, deep vein thrombosis, skin infections, and/or open wounds.
There are more than 100 types of massage techniques. A Swedish massage, for instance, uses long strokes to impact the superficial layers of your muscles. In contrast, a deep tissue massage uses direct pressure and slow strokes to impact your deep layers of muscle and relieve chronic muscular tension.
- Myofascial release is another option. This soft tissue therapy uses massage to stretch and manipulate connective tissues (eg, ligaments), making them more flexible and increasing your range of motion. Your massage therapist will work with you to determine what specific massage will best reduce your RA pain.
- Relaxation Therapy: Also known as meditation, relaxation therapy teaches you to release muscle tension and control your body's response to stress. Setting aside even five minutes a day to reflect and relax may prove beneficial in lifting your mood and reducing your pain.
- Mind-body Exercise: Yoga and Pilates feature a combination of gentle stretching, focused breathing, core strengthening, and mediation. These exercises also improve balance, posture, and help reduce stress. Mind-body exercises aim to help you control your RA pain so you can live a healthy and active life.
When you start any new medical program, let your practitioner know if you have any health conditions besides your rheumatoid arthritis pain. It's also important to note that these treatments are most effective when used as complementary treatments (that is, combined with conventional medicine).