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Alternative Treatments for Arthritis

Experts look at the pros and cons of alternative arthritis therapies.
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WebMD Feature

Alternative therapies for arthritis include everything from acupuncture, copper bracelets, and magnets to glucosamine and chondroitin supplements and yoga. But are any of these therapies really a match for your achy, creaky joints?

Many people with arthritis look to these alternative therapies to help relieve the pain, stiffness, stress, anxiety, and depression that accompany their disease. The Arthritis Foundation reports that two-thirds of people with arthritis have tried alternative therapies.

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And some of these alternative treatments really work, say leading arthritis experts, and even have scientific evidence behind them (although most doctors admit that more research is needed). On the other hand, many more alternative treatments don't work or need more studies to support any anecdotal claims.

Here's what's known -- and not yet known -- about some of the more popular alternative arthritis remedies.

Battling Arthritis With Movement

The mind-body practices of yoga and tai chi may help many people with arthritis.

Though there are few studies that look at the effects of yoga on arthritis per se, a study published in the British Journal of Rheumatology did find that people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who participated in a yoga program over a three-month period had greater grip strength than those who did not practice yoga.

Another study published in the Journal of Rheumatology reported that people who practiced yoga showed a significant improvement in pain, tenderness, and finger range of motion for osteoarthritis (OA) of the hands.

"Yoga and tai chi are exercises, and exercise is good," sums up David Pisetsky, MD, chief of rheumatology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. "They can help improve muscle strength and balance."

Exercise also helps people with arthritis maintain a healthy weight, which can aid in alleviating some of the symptoms of the disease. Excess weight can make achy joints feel that much worse. Swimming, walking, and other low-impact exercises can also help with pain relief and weight loss.

Sticking It to Arthritis Pain

A recent study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine estimated that 3.1 million adults in the U.S. are treated with acupuncture each year. And a lot of these individuals likely got needled to treat their arthritis. Acupuncture involves using thin needles to stimulate specific points on the body in hopes of removing blockages to channels of energy known as meridians, allowing energy to flow properly through the body.

A number of studies have looked at acupuncture in the two most common types of arthritis --OA and RA. The most recent review article involved 3,498 people with OA in 16 trials and found that acupuncture was superior to sham acupuncture for short-term improvements in pain and function, but that the benefits were pretty small.

"There is currently insufficient research to determine which arthritis patients benefit most from acupuncture," says review author Eric Manheimer, MS,  a research associate at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.  "Future research may be important to try to identify the optimal candidate for acupuncture on the basis of individual beliefs, expectations, and psychological profile."

Pisetsky's verdict: Give acupuncture a shot. "It may provide some temporary pain relief but does not change the course of the illness," Pisetsky says. "If you think it is beneficial, try it."

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