Rheumatoid Arthritis

Complementary and alternative approaches for rheumatoid arthritis

Complementary and alternative therapies have not been tested using conventional scientific methods, so their effects have mostly not been measured or proven. As the name 'complementary' suggests, these approaches are usually considered an addition to and not a substitute for conventional medical treatment.

Many of the people we interviewed had tried various complementary treatments, including special diets and herbal medicines (see also 'Diet and food supplements'.) Most of them said that complementary treatments had not helped. Some had tried various creams or copper or magnetic bracelets, but without obvious improvement.

One woman said that when she first got arthritis she got quite annoyed because others kept telling her to try their 'patent remedy', including comfrey tea, olives and gin. Other people blamed her for her illness not improving if she hadn't tried their remedies.

A few people had visited an osteopath or chiropractor, but because of existing damage to joints didn't recommend it for arthritis. One woman was having hydrotherapy at the same time and her physiotherapist told her that she would not treat her if she continued with the chiropractor because she didn't want to be responsible for anything that might go wrong.

Some people were very sceptical, and said that treatments such as massage had made them feel worse. They were concerned about 'quackery', whether practitioners were properly trained and thought that complementary treatments were a waste of money. One woman felt that more research into complementary therapies would be valuable so a more holistic approach to treatment could be used.

A minority thought, however, that complementary treatments or special diets had helped them, at least for a while. Some, for example, spoke very highly of spiritual and Reiki healing. Others enjoyed massage, aromatherapy and reflexology. Two women recommended adding lavender oil (relaxing) or boiled ginger (anti-inflammatory) to hot baths to help symptoms.

Massage by therapists or spouses on joints was felt beneficial, although some people had difficulty lying on their front, and others taking steroids had sensitive skin and found they were quite bruised afterwards.

A few people had found relief of joint stiffness and increased mobility after acupuncture, but others were afraid of needles. One woman had tried electronic acupuncture 'done by a little machine which sends a pulse through the skin'. The therapist worked on her elbows and she got some relief.

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One woman used disassociation to help control the pain. If her shoulder hurt, for example, she would visualise her shoulder as separate from her body. She took a long time to learn this skill, but found it most effective. Using relaxation techniques, meditation and incense helped others manage their pain.

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A 38 year old woman considered homeopathic medicine helpful, but another woman gave it up because it didn't seem to work. Two women felt that taking Bach's Flower remedies improved their general well being if not specifically their RA.

Complementary treatments and herbal medicines are not usually available on the NHS, and some patients couldn't afford them for long. Costs can mount up when people need to visit therapists regularly or when several types of treatments are tried. However, a few people said that their GPs were sympathetic to complementary approaches and would refer them to NHS consultants who used these treatments for limited periods. Some people had been referred to NHS homeopathic hospitals and although results were mixed the overall holistic approach to how RA affected their lives was appreciated and helped one woman manage her RA better.

One woman took drugs prescribed by her doctors for two years with no success so she wanted to try other approaches. Against her consultant's advice she stopped taking anti-inflammatory drugs and analgesics for many months, having been told that some treatments would work only if she saw them as an alternative to conventional medicine. However, they were not successful and the disease continued to damage her joints.

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Last reviewed August 2016.

Last updated September 2010.

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