Alternative Treatments for Arthritis

By: Betsy Hornick & Eric Yarnell

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.


Healing Agents

Omega-3 fatty acids and gingerroot have demonstrated promise in alleviating the pain associated with arthritis. Here's a look at how each of these healing agents works:

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Hope has been raised most by fish oils, of all things. It's the omega-3 fatty acids in fish -- the same stuff people were popping in the mid-1980s to fend off heart disease -- that may offer relief.


It's not such a fishy finding.

Omega-3 fatty acids are known to exert anti-inflammatory action by prompting the body to decrease inflammation. Several studies of RA sufferers have reported an easing of joint pain and less fatigue after taking fish oils; the discomfort and fatigue returned when the supplements were discontinued.

But this connection is far from proven and certainly not a cure. Despite optimistic results from omega-3s, the disease remains active, the relief is modest, and it appears that the therapy may need to be continued on a long-term basis to be of any real help. Don't start popping fish-oil capsules without your health care professional's approval, either. There can be serious side effects, including prolonged bleeding and an increased risk of stroke.

Then again, it certainly can't hurt to start eating more fish; it's part of a healthful diet anyway. Some reports say a half pound of fish a day may do the trick. If you can't manage that, try two or three servings a week.

Those who want to eat omega-3 foods but are intolerant of fish can choose other alternatives such as dried beans, broccoli, canola oil, chinese greens, flaxseed oil, ground flaxseeds, kale, legumes, salad greens, soybeans, soy milk, soy oil, tofu, walnut oil, walnuts, and wheat germ.


Gingerroots (technically the underground stems or rhizomes) have a long history of use in India for people with OA and RA. This spicy addition to many Asian cuisines reduces inflammation by blocking the cyclooxygenase (COX)  enzyme -- the very same enzyme that medications called COX-2 inhibitors, such as Celebrex, were developed to suppress.

Most of the COX-2 medications, however, were taken off the market because of cardiovascular side effects. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are also used to treat OA and RA, but they irritate the stomach. Ginger does not cause stomach irritation; in fact, it protects the digestive tract by increasing blood flow to the stomach, which brings with it bicarbonate to help control stomach acid. Consume at least a two-inch cube of fresh rhizome or 1 to 2 teaspoons ginger powder (less than six months old) two or three times per day. Larger amounts may be recommended by an herbal practitioner if your arthritis is severe.

The Allergy Angle

Because RA symptoms come and go, it's tempting to blame the condition on food allergies. About a third of RA sufferers do claim that certain foods trigger flare-ups of their symptoms. The connection could just be coincidence. But if an allergic reaction can indeed provoke symptoms, it's likely to be very individual.

There is no one food that can trigger arthritis symptoms in everyone. That means there is no single food everyone can avoid or one diet for all to follow that could cure this condition.

If you want to test yourself for food allergies, visit a registered dietitian so you can be monitored on a nutritionally sound elimination diet. Such a regimen starts with a simple diet that eliminates any possible allergy-producing foods, then adds them back one at a time, so that any consequences can be observed. A caution: Beware of any diet that eliminates entire food groups for a long period of time.

In any case, try to protect yourself from food-borne illnesses, as these can precipitate a temporary attack of Reiter's syndrome, a reactive arthritis triggered by eating contaminated food.

The natural remedies we've described in this article won't cure arthritis -- but they do have the potential to take away some of the pain and inflammation.

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