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.

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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.

Detoxification, Fasting, and Colon Therapy for Arthritis

Detoxification therapy can cleanse the body -- in particular, the joints -- of any built-up toxins that might cause the limited motion and pain of arthritis. Fasting for a week or more, taking only water and perhaps herbal teas, can be especially helpful. During a fast, arthritic symptoms may disappear. If food allergies or sensitivities are suspected, a fast can flush out any allergenic substances and prepare the body for dietary alterations. A long-term fast must be supervised by an experienced practitioner. A juice diet, such as drinking only carrot and celery juice for a week, can also be helpful but should be undertaken under strict supervision.

If you decide to undertake a long-term fast, you'll need to be regularly monitored for blood pressure, electrolyte levels, and several other bodily changes. Ask your health practitioner for advice.

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Mind/Body Medicine for Arthritis

Several factors besides the inflammatory response of tissues greatly influence the course of arthritis, including a person's attitude toward the disease, level of emotional stress, and ability to cope. The hopeful news is that the person with arthritis has control over these factors. Various mind/ body techniques can lead to an easing of arthritic pain, improved range of motion, easier sleeping, and a strengthened immune system. These techniques include:

  • creative visualization
  • guided imagery
  • progressive relaxation
  • support groups
  • self-hypnosis
  • meditation

The notion that the mind can relieve some symptoms of arthritis was popularized by the Arthritis Self-Help Course, an educational program developed at the Stanford University Arthritis Center. The course is typically taught by people with arthritis, not by doctors or nurses. Although the course follows the allopathic treatment approach, it also teaches mind/body techniques and basic how-to strategies (from opening jars to avoiding depression). Graduates of the course experience reduced joint swelling and greater mobility.

Here's a simple relaxation technique that may reduce pain and inflammation:

  • Wearing loose clothing, sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
  • Begin breathing deeply and slowly.
  • With each breath, invite a different part of your body to relax.
  • Imagine each inhaled breath as light going to the joints of your body and each exhaled breath as the pain flowing out of your joints.
  • Continue the slow, deep breathing for as long as you are comfortable.
  • When you are ready, slowly return to your normal rate and rhythm of breathing and open your eyes slowly.

Other Arthritis Therapies

  • Aromatherapy for Arthritis -- Massages with essential oils of juniper, thyme, rosemary, or chamomile may be helpful.
  • Ayurvedic Medicine for Arthritis -- Therapeutic diet, herbal therapy, oil massages, and breathing exercises are aimed at eliminating the causes of arthritis.
  • Chiropractic Treatment for Arthritis -- Treatment can reduce pain and increase joint flexibility for people with osteoarthritis.
  • Environmental Medicine for Arthritis -- Certain foods, molds, chemicals, and other substances can all trigger arthritis. After extensive testing, treatment involves avoidance and desensitization.
  • Homeopathy for Arthritis -- Common remedies include bryonia alba, pulsatilla nigricans, and rhus toxicodendron.
  • Hydrotherapy for Arthritis -- Cold or hot compresses, or alternating hot and cold compresses, can be used for pain relief and to stimulate blood circulation.
  • Osteopathy for Arthritis -- Manipulation can be particularly beneficial for people with osteoarthritis.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine for Arthritis -- Arthritis may result from blocked energy, or qi; acupuncture can restore the energy flow. (The National Institutes of Health's Office of Alternative Medicine funded a study on acupuncture treatment for osteoarthritis.) Treatment may also include herbal therapy.

For more information on arthritis and alternative medicine, see: