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Alternative treatments for arthritis: Do they really help?

An older man tying a fly for fly fishing.

Herbal medicines, massage and acupuncture are often advertised as arthritis treatments. Learn about them.

It's easy to get frustrated if your usual arthritis treatments don't help enough with your pain. Everyday challenges can become difficult tasks. If this happens, you may be tempted to try one or more of the alternative therapies advertised as arthritis treatments.

Some alternative treatments may be worth a try. But before you start, you should protect both your wallet and your health by taking time to learn about the medicine and the practitioner who's providing it.

Here are some alternative treatments you might hear about.

Herbs and supplements

Among the most popular alternative treatments for arthritis are herbal medicines and dietary supplements. These products are marketed as natural remedies, implying that they're gentler and safer than the chemicals in conventional medicines.

In fact, some of these products are far from safe.

Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed and can only take action against misbranded or adulterated supplements after they're already on the market, you can't be sure what you're taking. Some supplements may be tainted with prescription drugs or other unsafe ingredients.

You also can't be sure that the treatment will actually work. For example, many people take glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Yet it's still unclear if these supplements have any meaningful benefit.

For any supplement, potential benefits must be weighed against potential risks.

Fish oil has some anti-inflammatory properties and may relieve some arthritis pain. It seems to work better for rheumatoid arthritis, which is driven by inflammation, than for osteoarthritis. But in high doses, it may interact with medicines such as blood thinners.

Studies show that the traditional Chinese medicine thunder god vine may fight inflammation and help with rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. But it can cause serious side effects such as decreased bone density and male infertility. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the herb's side effects may outweigh potential benefits.

Researchers continue to study these and other substances as a way to help with arthritis pain. But so far studies haven't found a natural therapy that can replace the traditional medicine that is currently available. Some natural remedies work especially well when used along with traditional arthritis treatments.

If you're thinking of trying an herb or supplement, be sure to:

Check with your doctor first. Some herbs or supplements may interact with your regular medicines or contain harmful ingredients.

Make sure the product comes from a reputable manufacturer, like one you recognize. If you don't know, ask your doctor or pharmacist about the source.

Read the label. Does it claim to cure arthritis or advise you to stop taking your regular medicines? If so, don't use the product. Products can't legally claim this, and stopping your regular medicines wouldn't be safe.

Consider the cost. These remedies typically aren't covered by insurance, and some can be expensive.

Massage therapy

Research shows that massage can help ease pain and increase grip strength in those with rheumatoid arthritis.

If you're considering a massage, ask yourself:

  • Is the therapist trained to work with people with arthritis? Special care must be taken with sore joints.
  • When you have the massage, does it hurt? If so, ask the therapist to adjust their technique.
  • Does your insurance pay for their massage? If so, how many visits does it cover?

Acupuncture

This therapy involves inserting needles into specific places on the body.

According to the NCCIH, some studies suggest that acupuncture may help ease knee arthritis pain. But some research suggests that placebo treatments that mimic acupuncture but don't put the needles in the specific acupuncture spots can provide the same, or nearly the same, amount of pain relief.

People who want to try acupuncture and can afford it should ask these questions first.

  • Is the therapist licensed? Acupuncture is safest when done by a trained practitioner.
  • How many treatments does the therapist think you will need? Insurance sometimes covers acupuncture, but may limit the number of treatments or the total cost.

Do your own research

Other alternative therapies besides the ones mentioned are sometimes touted as arthritis remedies. But no matter which therapy you might be considering, it's important to do your research. And it's worth repeating: Your research should also include talking with your doctor about how the treatment can interact with your current therapies.

In fact, you should tell your doctor about everything you're using, including herbs, supplements or over-the-counter products. This will help you get the best and safest care.

Remember: Alternative treatments for arthritis may not always help, but they should never do harm.

Reviewed 7/23/2021

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