Alternative Medicines for Arthritis

Arthritis is a painful disease of the joints. Osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are the two major types. In OA -- which often affects the hips, knees, feet, and spine -- the joint cartilage deteriorates over time. In RA, the membranes lining the joints become inflamed, limiting the joint's range of motion. The body's immune system attacking its own tissues is the most likely cause of RA.

Many practitioners of alternative therapies disagree with the attitude of allopathic doctors toward arthritis. Instead of sidestepping the issue of cause, these alternative treatments recognize particular triggers that can be responsible. In fact, some practitioners of alternative medicine believe that aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may actually encourage the progression of OA. These medicines have been suspected of interfering with the body's repair and maintenance of joint cartilage.


Nutritional Therapy for Arthritis

According to nutritional therapy, diet plays a large role in both causing and treating arthritis. The disease is triggered in part by a complex mix of nutritional deficiencies, excesses, and sensitivities -- a mix that is specific to each type of arthritis and each person. Therefore, a treatment program of dietary changes and supplements needs to be highly individualized. In many cases nutritional therapy can halt the progression of arthritis, and in a few cases, it can even reverse it.

Animal foods -- Avoiding animal foods is one way of reducing some arthritis symptoms. This may be because arachidonic acid, a fatty acid found in these foods, can provoke joint inflammation. Aside from arachidonic acid, a diet high in animal protein delivers a lot of phosphorus but not a lot of calcium. This starts a chain reaction in the body, causing some calcium to leach out of the bones and a few calcium deposits to settle around the joints (a common characteristic of people with OA). To remedy this situation, calcium and magnesium supplements are often prescribed together with dietary changes.

A group of researchers with the University of Oslo in Norway showed that people with RA who followed a vegetarian diet for one year experienced a significant improvement in symptoms when compared with people in a control group who followed an ordinary diet. After a weeklong fast, the patients in the study group consumed a vegan diet (with no beef, poultry, seafood, dairy products, or eggs) and avoided all gluten (a wheat protein) for three and a half months. Then they switched to a lactovegetarian diet (with dairy products being the only animal foods allowed) for the rest of the year.

Food allergies -- Food allergies or sensitivities have been implicated in many cases of arthritis, particularly RA. An elimination diet (in which certain foods are avoided for days or weeks and then reintroduced one by one) can be helpful in pinpointing what triggers or worsens a person's particular symptoms. Common culprits include:

  • wheat
  • corn
  • dairy products
  • beef
  • citrus fruits
  • salt
  • caffeine

In addition, some people with OA or RA may be sensitive to the "nightshade" foods, including tomatoes, white potatoes, eggplant, and all peppers except black pepper. Many have found relief by avoiding these foods.

Fish oils -- Clinical studies have shown that fish oils can alleviate some RA symptoms. These oils, found in cold-water fish and in oil from the herb evening primrose, contain essential fatty acids that can work toward controlling inflammation in the body. Other essential fatty acid oils such as flax, borage, sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin also may be helpful.

Glucosamine sulfate -- Glucosamine sulfate is one of the building blocks of cartilage. Studies have shown it to be useful in treating arthritis, especially OA. Not only does glucosamine sulfate help to rebuild the joint surface, but according to at least one study, it may be more effective at controlling pain than ibuprofen.

Weight control -- Excess body weight means excess pressure on a lot of the body's joints. Therefore, people with arthritis, especially OA, should strive to maintain their ideal body weight. One way this can be achieved is by following a low-fat, whole-foods vegetarian diet. However, avoiding the essential fatty acids in an effort to cut fat may be detrimental in the long run (see Fish oils, above).

Herbal Medicine for Arthritis

Herbs can do much more than ease pain for people with arthritis. They can fight inflammation, encourage the repair and maintenance of damaged cartilage and bones, and cleanse toxins from the joints.

Devil's claw root, gingerroot, meadowsweet leaves and flowertops, and white willow bark all act as anti-inflammatory agents that can relieve pain. (In fact, aspirin contains a chemical that's the synthesized version of a substance found in meadowsweet and willow.)

Comfrey, applied to the joints as a cream or infused oil, speeds healing of cartilage and bones, especially in cases of OA. Celery seeds can promote urination, thereby eliminating toxins from the body.

Other helpful herbs include boswellia (frankincense), capsicum (cayenne), feverfew, and licorice root. It's important to note that the goal of herbal therapy is not to suppress pain totally, as this symptom can signal people with arthritis to rest.