Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can be effectively managed through conventional treatments — medication, physical therapy, and, if necessary, surgery.
But some lifestyle changes and home remedies may help your recovery while undergoing treatment. Alternative and complementary therapies that fall outside of conventional Western medicine may provide additional relief.
Lifestyle changes and home treatments help decrease RA symptoms and improve functioning.
If you have RA, it’s important to remain active. In fact, exercise is considered an essential aspect of RA treatment. A physical therapist can design an exercise program for you to maintain at home, with exercises that will help keep your joints as flexible as possible, and also keep your muscles strong — further relieving pressure on your joints.
Though exercise is important for RA recovery, you should balance your physical activity with rest, since fatigue is a common symptom of RA. Rest can help reduce joint inflammation and the associated symptoms of pain, stiffness, and swelling.
If you’re experiencing an occasional flare-up of pain and inflammation, you can try using:
- Heat treatments, such as packs or warm baths, to sooth stiff joints and tired muscles; or cold treatments for acute pain
- Over-the-counter topical ointments
- Specialized braces or splints that support the joints and allow them to rest
- Self-help devices, such as zipper pullers and long-handled shoehorns, to ease stress on your joints during daily activities
It’s also important to maintain a healthy emotional state. Though there’s no evidence that stress itself can cause rheumatoid arthritis, it may affect the severity of your RA symptoms. For instance, going through major depression while having RA can increase your pain, disability, and fatigue, according to the consumer health information company A.D.A.M.
Relaxation techniques, visualization exercises, group counseling, and therapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) can help you deal with the inevitable stresses of living with RA.
Some complementary or alternative therapies may play a role in RA treatment, but the effectiveness of most of them is still uncertain.
You should always check with your medical provider before trying any complementary or alternative therapies.
Acupuncture has long been used to treat pain. And while numerous studies have investigated the needle-based technique for pain treatment, few have focused specifically on RA — and those that have were small and poorly designed, according to UpToDate.
Overall, reviews of the effectiveness of acupuncture for RA have yielded conflicting results.
A review of acupuncture studies for RA published in October 2005 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews concluded that the treatment has no effect on pain or on the number of swollen or tender joints, among other things. More recently, a review published in January 2009 in the British Medical Journal also failed to find a clear benefit to using acupuncture for RA.
Tai chi hasn’t yet been thoroughly investigated for RA. Studies appear to suggest it may improve mood (especially during practice), quality of life, and physical function, but may not be effective for joint pain, tenderness, and swelling, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
With that said, tai chi and acupuncture both appear to be safe to try for RA.
Some individual studies have found that yoga may help patients with RA by improving physical function, increasing grip strength, and reducing inflammation — specifically decreasing the number of tender and swollen joints. But systematic reviews of these and other studies have found mixed evidence for yoga.
If you do decide to try yoga for RA, avoid Bikram yoga and other high-intensity forms of yoga.
Other therapies include:
- Hydrotherapy (mineral baths)
Numerous dietary supplements have been proposed for RA treatment, and research suggests that some of them appear promising.
Fish oil, for instance, contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and studies have suggested that this substance may help relieve tender joints and morning stiffness, reducing the need for anti-inflammatory drugs. But fish oil should be used with caution because it can interact with blood pressure medication, and some products also contain high levels of mercury.
Plant oils, such as black currant, primrose oil, and borage, may also be beneficial as they contain omega-6 fatty acids in addition to omega-3 fatty acids. But some of these oils have significant side effects, such as increasing your risk of bleeding and worsening your liver function.
In a report published in June 2015 in the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, researchers found that combining the herbal remedy Tripterygium wilfordii Hook.f. (thunder god vine) with methotrexate— a common RA medication — works better than the methotrexate alone. But this herbal remedy can cause severe side effects that may not be worth the intended benefits, according to the NCCIH.
Research has shown that curcumin — a major active component of turmeric — also has anti-inflammatory properties that may make it helpful for RA and numerous other conditions. Because curcumin is rapidly removed from the body, several formulations exist on the market to increase its “bioavailability” — how much of the substance circulates in the body.
Curcumin is generally safe, but, as always, talk to your doctor before taking it.
Other supplements under investigation include:
- Pomegranate extract
- Green tea