Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition in which the body’s impaired immune response attacks its own joints. It can cause significant pain, swelling, and disability.
Many people prefer looking for treatment options beyond the standard medications used to treat RA that include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), and biologics.
Holistic medicine has emerged as one potential option. This type of healthcare focuses not only on treating the condition but more widely on preventing a flare-up of the disease and on improving your overall well-being. This article will discuss holistic care and detail the treatments available for rheumatoid arthritis.
What Are CAM Therapies?
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is any treatment outside the typical treatment norms of Western medicine. Western medicine is the type of medicine practiced in the United States that includes a healthcare professional treating patients with treatments such as medication, surgery, or radiation. CAM therapies are meant to be an adjunct to (used in addition to) the usual care. Alternative therapies (which usually are not recommended in Western medicine) are meant to replace standard treatments.
Under the CAM umbrella is a wide variety of potential treatments, some more beneficial than others. Not all should be immediately dismissed, however. Research shows that there are several promising complementary treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. These include but are not limited to supplements, herbal medicines, and dietary changes.
The Overlap With Holistic Medicine
Holistic medicine focuses on many aspects of your well-being, including the physical, social, mental, and spiritual components. While it incorporates evidence-based complementary therapies, this style of treatment also strives to achieve a more global focus.
Taking a holistic approach to care means treating the patient as a whole, rather than addressing the individual symptoms of a disease.
CAM Works Alongside Your Medication
While your initial research on certain CAM treatments may be promising, it is important to keep two things in mind.
First, CAM therapy is meant to complement, not replace, traditional RA medications. The rheumatoid arthritis drugs commonly prescribed by your healthcare provider have much evidence supporting their benefits. Because of this, medications are usually the central focus of any treatment strategy.
Second, contact your healthcare provider before you begin any new treatment. Many CAM therapies can negatively interact with rheumatoid arthritis medications and lead to harmful side effects.
Using your prescribed medications and only alternative therapies approved by your healthcare provider gives you the most effective long-term symptom management strategy.
Integrative Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment
Integrative treatment of rheumatoid arthritis means using a holistic outlook to treat symptoms and improve overall well-being at the same time. This approach frequently includes both complementary treatments and mainstay medications and therapies. The following are some of the most commonly utilized holistic treatments for RA.
Acupuncture is the practice of inserting fine needles into various regions of the body. This ancient Chinese form of medicine is purported to help RA symptoms by inhibiting inflammation, relaxing your muscles, and improving blood flow in the area being treated. These potential benefits are still very hypothetical, however.
While the evidence for this holistic treatment is still limited, one 2018 review of the research showed that people with RA who had acupuncture had improved daily function and quality of life scores. Importantly, acupuncture had no adverse effects when combined with typical Western medical treatments.
Tai chi is a form of martial arts that may help with rheumatoid arthritis. This exercise involves gentle, rhythmic movements and poses that are thought to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, and slow the damage to your joints.
While some initial research has shown small improvements in function after participating in tai chi, the present evidence is limited and lacks quality. It does appear, however, that the risk of harmful side effects in people with RA is minimal.
Diet and Supplements
Making dietary changes has the potential to improve some of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. For example, one study found that following the Mediterranean diet (which limits red meat and emphasizes fruits, vegetables, beans, fish, and olive oil) can lead to lower pain levels in people with RA.
Eating a balanced diet also plays a huge role in maintaining healthy body weight. This limits the strain on joints affected by your condition and may decrease your overall pain levels.
Several types of supplements have also been suggested as possible holistic treatments. This is because people with RA have been shown to have lower levels of several different molecules in their body, including vitamin D and selenium.
Unfortunately, research has not reported that supplementation has led to any appreciable benefit. There is some evidence, however, that the use of the supplement glucosamine may improve pain in people with this disease.
Mixing herbs or supplements with traditional RA medications can lead to potentially harmful side effects. Because of this, it is important to speak to your healthcare provider before adding a substance to your daily regimen.
Several types of herbs have shown promising effects in people with rheumatoid arthritis. For example, cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) is a vine-like herb that can potentially regulate the faulty immune response in people with this disease.
Other herbs, like rosehip and Andrographis paniculata, have also demonstrated the ability to reduce inflammation levels or decrease disease activity in people with RA.
Ginger and turmeric are also frequently recognized for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The evidence to support their use with rheumatoid arthritis, however, is still fairly limited.
CBD and Arthritis Pain Relief
Recently, the medical use of cannabidiol (CBD) has exploded in popularity. This substance, an extract from the marijuana plant, is nonpsychoactive (not affecting perception or behavior) and has been suggested as a possible treatment for arthritis pain.
Physiologically, CBD has been shown to activate anti-inflammatory receptors in the body. The substance has also been proven to have analgesic or pain-relieving potential.
Unfortunately, the benefits of using it to treat rheumatoid arthritis are still unproven. To date, there is minimal evidence proving that CBD alone improves pain or alleviates inflammation in people with RA. Because of the relatively low risk of side effects, it may be worth discussing CBD with your healthcare provider.
Holistic RA Providers
Holistic RA providers specialize in treating RA while also ensuring that your overall well-being is addressed. This type of physician is typically well versed in the benefits and evidence behind many different complementary therapies that may be used for rheumatoid arthritis.
In addition to offering typical treatments for RA, holistic doctors are also able to refer you to a wide variety of ancillary therapies. In fact, some holistic clinics may even offer some of them in the same building. These wellness-based services might include:
The cost of holistic care varies widely depending on your insurance coverage. Also, while care provided by a rheumatologist (a physician specializing in arthritis care) is commonly covered by most insurance plans, insurance benefits for ancillary holistic treatments like acupuncture or chiropractic care are usually more limited.
It is worth noting that flexible spending accounts (FSAs) or health savings accounts (HSAs) usually are able to be used for many complementary therapies. Be sure to speak to your insurance carrier to gain more insight into your benefits.
Where to Find Them
The Internet is a great resource for locating a holistic RA doctor in your area. It is important, however, to ensure that your physician is a board-certified rheumatologist. This helps confirm that they are a specialist in treating this type of disease and have the training necessary to address your symptoms.
The American College of Rheumatology’s website offers a search feature to help you locate care closer to you.
CAM Pros vs. Cons
CAM therapies have several potential advantages. Many of these treatments can improve your RA symptoms when used along with Western medicine.
These holistic therapies may also address aspects of your well-being (mental or spiritual) that may be overlooked by traditional medicine. In addition, many CAM treatments are relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of more standard medical care.
There are some potential drawbacks to complementary therapies, however. Many holistic treatments are not strictly regulated by government agencies. Because of this, there is a likelihood that the benefits of these services are being exaggerated.
In addition, this lack of regulation increases the risk of potential side effects and makes the quality of the treatment you receive more variable. Finally, insurance coverage for CAM therapies usually is lacking, making these options less accessible to many people.
Holistic medicine aims to address your overall well-being instead of simply treating the symptoms of a disease. This approach commonly includes both traditional medications as well as complementary therapies.
There is some research showing that certain holistic interventions may help to alleviate the pain, inflammation, and disability associated with RA. It is important, however, to speak to your healthcare provider first to ensure each treatment is safe and helpful in your situation.
A Word From Verywell
Rheumatoid arthritis is an unpredictable and often frustrating disease. Because of the toll it can take on your body, it is not unusual to look into alternative treatment options.
While RA is most effectively managed with medication, taking a holistic approach can help ensure that the other areas of your well-being are also being looked after. If you are interested in pursuing complementary treatments for your disease, be sure to have a discussion about holistic medicine with your rheumatologist.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does holistic treatment for RA help with inflammation?
When used as an adjunct to more traditional treatments, several holistic interventions may help with inflammation. These include herbs like rosehip or Andrographis paniculata. Dietary modifications that reduce the intake of fried or sugary foods may also decrease inflammatory markers in the body.
What’s the most common herbal remedy for RA?
Many different herbal remedies have been suggested for treating RA symptoms. Among the most effective are cat’s claw and rosehip. Ginger and turmeric may also help with inflammation, though the research is still limited for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Can you experience arthritis pain relief without prescription drugs?
Medications are still considered to be the gold standard for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. That said, certain nondrug options may also offer pain relief. These include dietary modifications, the use of certain supplements and herbs, and participating in regular aerobic exercise and strengthening.
What are free CAM therapies for RA?
While the evidence supporting them is still somewhat limited, participating in tai chi, yoga, or mindfulness may be beneficial and inexpensive if you have RA. Instruction on these complementary therapies is available for free on the Internet. In addition, many local community and nonprofit centers for older adults offer free or discounted classes.