Millions of dollars are spent every year on prescriptions help relieve pain and stiffness associated with arthritis. Are there more natural supplements or alternative treatments that can be equally as effective? Do these natural approaches actually help in alleviating symptoms and is it worth the cost or effort?
What is Arthritis?
Arthritis is a way of describing any disorders that affect joints, including joint pain and multiple joint diseases. It can mean inflammation and/or the breakdown of the cartilage tissue exacerbated by infection or injury to the joints, smoking, physically demanding work situations, or heredity. There are over 100 types of arthritis. It affects people of all ages. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. Arthritis is the number one cause of disability in the United States, and can be one of the most painful and disabling conditions worldwide. More than 350 million people have arthritis worldwide and more than 50 million in the United States. It is estimated that one-third of all adults eventually will develop arthritis. Arthritis is a chronic disease that currently has no cure, but it can be controlled and treated. Symptoms include joint pain, bone erosion, thinning cartilage, tenderness, fatigue, poor sleep, stiffness, redness, swelling, edema, and decreased range of motion at the affected joint. The primary approach to treating arthritis is pain relievers. Studies have shown that arthroscopic surgery to the knee or other affected joints has not shown to be statistically significant in treating arthritis.
Common Alternative Approaches
Most people with arthritis will be treated with pain and anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS, such as ibuprofen, Advil, Motrin, Aleve, etc.), cortisone shots, and hyaluronic acid injections. Studies have also shown that Tylenol (Acetaminophen) can often relieve moderate to severe pain and doesn’t irritate the digestive system in the same way that NSAIDS do. However, more people are choosing to avoid injections and prescription drugs and try complimentary, holistic, or alternative approaches first or in combination with orthodox treatments. Several alternative approaches to pain and stiffness that can be effective. As with all treatment, it is wise to consult with a trusted medical doctor or healthcare practitioner, before trying a new approach to health and healing. Fifteen of the more common alternative approaches are listed below:
- Glucosamine and chondroitin – Glucosamine and chondroitin are often paired together, or can be purchased separately. Prices vary, depending on the label. There is good evidence that this combination is effective in treating arthritis pain and stiffness. The effectiveness of these two nutritional supplements fared better than placebos in multiple scientific studies. However, people with allergies to shellfish should avoid taking glucosamine.
- Exercise – Exercise, or physical therapy is the most common and most trusted approach to relieving arthritis pain and stiffness. Exercise can include swim therapy (aquatic therapy), dance therapy, tai chi, yoga, and other movement modalities. Multiple studies have shown that exercise (aerobic, weight-bearing, stretching and strengthening) improves balance and prevents falls. It is important to consult with a trusted healthcare practitioner before starting any new exercise program.
- Heat and Cold – Alternating heat and cold has been an effective approach for many years. Applying hot packs to the affected arthritic joint can reduce and/or relieve pain and stiffness. Cold packs can be helpful to reduce swelling and pain after exercising.
- Stabilizing Devices –Stabilizing devices such as braces, wedges, arches, insoles, orthopedic shoes, cervical pillows, canes, trekking poles, walkers, wheelchairs, and other related equipment, can reduce or eliminate pain, improve mobility and reduce the incidence of falls. They are also helpful in changing the pressure on the joints. However, continued use of stabilizing devises can cause muscle atrophy. It’s important to work closely with a doctor or trusted healthcare provider to determine to what extent, and how often these devices should be used and to also design an exercise or rehabilitation schedule to maintain muscle strength.
- Acupuncture – A 2004 study found in the Annals of Internal Medicine, reported that acupuncture reduced osteoarthritis knee pain significantly and improved joint function. This study was the largest clinical study of its kind. More research is needed to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture on arthritis.
- Avocado Oil and Soybean Oil – Avocado and soybean oils have been successfully used in animal research to protect joint cartilage and reduce the need for painkillers. The cost is relatively inexpensive however more research is needed. More evidence is needed to determine the long term effectiveness.
- Copper, Hematite, and Magnets – Copper, hematite or magnet bracelets and jewelry have been widely advertised as effective in relieving arthritis pain. There is no scientific evidence to support this finding, however, there are no detrimental effects. Bracelets are relatively inexpensive, making it fairly safe investment, unless one has had an allergy to the metals.
- MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane) – Methylsufonylmethane has been used for many years as a supplement to treating arthritis symptoms. It is a compound containing sulfur and may be effective in decreasing pain and swelling associated with arthritis. More research is needed to determine if this supplement is clinically effective. MSM is fairly inexpensive.
- Vitamin D – Doctors sometimes prescribe vitamin D supplements to help support cartilage and bone growth. It has been effective in animal research studies. Low vitamin D levels has been associated with osteoarthritis. More research is needed.
- Ginger and/or Capsaicin – Ginger and Capsaicin have long been used to alleviate pain due to their natural anti-inflammatory properties. Capsaicin is the hot ingredient found in pepper plant. They are each especially effective in pill form or over-the-counter creams or gels, when used on the hands, elbows, knees rather than larger deeper joints, such as hip. Clinical trials have showed that ginger supplements can reduce knee pain, although studies have not been statistically significant. More research is needed. Risk is minimal.
- Therapeutic Massage – Certain types of therapeutic massage might by beneficial in increasing circulation, and relieving stiffness, stress or tension. However, deep tissue massage might be detrimental to those with arthritis and irritate painful and inflamed tissue surrounding the joints. Massage therapists should adjust pressure according to the level of pain, or sensitivity. Self-massage is an option for most people to help with relaxation and needed sleep. More research is needed as to the effectiveness of massage as a treatment for arthritis.
- Chiropractic – Rheumatologists are careful about recommending chiropractic treatment for those with arthritis, especially those with rheumatoid arthritis. When a person is having an arthritis “flare” and is in considerable joint pain, chiropractic adjustments (manual manipulation of the joints) shouldn’t be attempted. Joints and connective tissues may be swollen, tender, and inflamed. Manipulation can aggravate inflammation. People with osteoporosis, or ankylosing spondylitis (fusion of the spine), may become injured or symptoms may worsen with spinal adjustments. However, some may benefit from chiropractic treatment. It’s best to consult with a trusted doctor and physician. More studies need to be conducted to determine its effectiveness.
- Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) –A Cochrane review in 2000 concluded that electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) for knee osteoarthritis was more effective in pain control than placebo. TENS uses a small, battery-powered machine about the size of a pocket radio. The person will connect two electrodes (wires that conduct an electrical current) from the machine to the area of the skin, where there is pain, stiffness or discomfort. Physical therapists often will use electrical nerve stimulation in combination with heat application and massage.
- Laser Therapy or Light Therapy –Low-level laser therapy, using low level lasers or light emitting diodes (LEDs) has been used to relieve pain and stiffness associated with arthritis. More research is needed. Evidence is tentative.
Personal handheld laser devices vary in the intensity and size of the laser beam. Effects may be mildly helpful, but not significantly better than placebos in scientific studies. NSAIDS may reduce the effectiveness of cold laser therapy.
- Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF) Research has shown that PEMF therapy has been effective in improving function but not in improving pain. Pulse magnetotherapy, or PEMF, is most commonly used in the area of orthopedics for the treatment of non-union fractures, failed fusions, congenital pseudarthrosis and depression. The FDA has not approved PEMF for the treatment of arthritis. However, in Canada, PEMF devices are legally licensed for the treatment of arthritis.
American Massage Therapy Association – www.amtamassage.org
American College of Rheumatology – www.rheumatology.org
Arthritis Foundation – www.arthritis.org
Arthritis Research Foundation – www.curearthritis.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention –www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/index.htm
Childhood Arthritis and Rheumatology Research Alliance (CARRA) – www.carragroup.org
Kids Get Arthritis Too (Juvenile Arthritis) – www.kidsgetarthritistoo.org
National Institute of Arthritis and Muskuloskeletal and Skin Diseases – www.niams.nih.gov
North American Association for Photobiomodulation Therapy – www.naalt.org
Spondylitis Association – www.spondylitis.org
WALT – World Association for Laser Therapy – waltza.co.z
Jean Dart, M.S. Special Education from Illinois State University, is a published author and has written hundreds of health articles as well as hosting a local television program, “Making Miracles Happen.” She is a Registered Music Therapist, Sound Therapist, and Master Level Energetic Teacher, and is the Executive Director, founder, and Health and Wellness Educator of the Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance, a 501(c)3 health education nonprofit organization. All photos used in this article are by www.pixabay.com unless otherwise noted. To find out more about our Health Educators, or to apply as a Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance writer or volunteer, visit our website at www.montereybayholistic.com
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