It's a common tabloid headline -- "Miracle Cure for Arthritis!" Arthritis is the kind of disease that's not well understood, so anything goes when it comes to theories and treatments. And arthritis often strikes older folks, who are favorite targets of charlatans.

If you suffer from arthritis, you know how desperate you can get for relief. You may feel you have nothing to lose by trying an alleged cure. After all, your own doctor may not be able to offer much relief, and what medicines there are -- primarily nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids -- have limited benefits and may cause some unpleasant side effects, as well.

Arthritis is unpredictable, with natural flare-ups and remissions. This, of course, makes it very difficult for patients to know for sure if any improvement is the result of a specific treatment or just a normal remission. Arthritis is a natural for the placebo effect, when the patient's expectation that a treatment will work can actually result in improvement.

In this article, we will give a general overview of arthritis and then examine some alternative treatments that may provide relief from the symptoms of this painful affliction.

Many Diseases, One Name

Arthritis isn't really a single disease at all. It's a term used to describe more than 100 disorders known collectively as rheumatic diseases. Although the Greek word arthritis literally means "joint inflammation," even this classic symptom isn't present in all types.

Take osteoarthritis (OA), the most common form of arthritis. It often involves no inflammation. OA is a degenerative joint disease; weight-bearing joints simply wear themselves out. This is a stereotypical condition of old age, but it's not uncommon in the younger crowd. It's particularly common among athletes (baseball players, golfers, tennis players), typists, pianists -- anyone who pounds joints.

It may start, for whatever reason (maybe heredity), with the thinning out of cartilage between joints. Eventually, wear and tear destroys the cartilage. This creates painful bone-on-bone rubbing. If you're overweight, you're more likely to develop OA, because there's more stress and strain on your joints, particularly your knees. Research shows that, conversely, if you lose excess weight -- at least 11 pounds, according to one study of overweight middle-aged women -- you can cut in half your risk of developing OA of the knee.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is practically a different disease altogether. It's characterized by inflamed knuckles and joints and, often, misshapen hands. People who have RA and other forms of arthritis must endure endless episodes of swollen, red, painfully stiff joints. RA, like the related disorder lupus, is an autoimmune disease, which means the body is literally attacking itself. And the battle isn't confined to the joints. The entire body is affected, sometimes causing fatigue, loss of appetite, even fever.

The desperation bred by the mystery and misery of RA could explain why, according to estimates, most sufferers have tried as many as 13 different arthritis remedies in search of relief. Diets and food cures seem to lead the pack.

Although the inventory of unfounded arthritis cures is long, there is a short list of dietary factors with healing potential. Most of the promising nutrition research has involved RA. In addition to diet, some relief from discomfort may also be found through weight loss and exercise.

In the next section, we will review the foods that may provide relief to the symptoms of arthritis.