What Complementary Therapies Help With Osteoarthritis?

Medication and medical procedures aren't the only ways to manage the painful symptoms of osteoarthritis (OA). As long as there have been bones and doctors, people have looked for ways to make the grating, the aching, and the stiffness go away.

There's not one right way to do it; there's just what works for you. Try a few of these complementary therapies on for size:

Exercise

All exercise is good exercise, as long as it doesn’t stress out your body. But when you have OA, it's important to focus on what's best for your joints. Ask a physical therapist to create an exercise plan that'll make the muscles around your joint stronger, reduce pain, and give you the most range of motion.

An occupational therapist (OT) gives you new ways to perform everyday tasks, like how to hold your toothbrush or how to shower without stressing your joints. She can also recommend products, like a shower bench, to lessen flare-ups at home.

Interested in tai chi or yoga? Now may be the time to try them. Gentle exercise therapies can make movement less painful. Tell the instructor about your OA so he can make it a safe, enjoyable experience for you.

Alterative Therapies

Used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine, acupuncture is said to keep the flow of energy moving through your body. When that flow -- called qi and pronounced "chee"-- gets out of balance, the body becomes ill. When you have OA, the practice of putting needles into specific points in the body may renew your flow and lessen pain and inflammation.

TENS, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, is often used to treat OA. It uses electrodes to send electrical impulses to nerve pathways. This lessens some types of pain.

There's also NMES, or neuromuscular electrical stimulation. Instead of just stimulating the nerves, NMES includes the muscle tissue that supports the joint, as well. Studies show it’s an effective treatment, especially for those with OA of the knee.

Can you think your way to less stiffness? Many believe that the strong connection between your mind and body can change the way you feel. In creative visualization, or guided imagery, you imagine a pain-free body. When you feel the emotions that come with those images, they have a better chance of happening in real life. Professional athletes, astronauts, and hospitals across the country use creative visualization. It can also reduce the stress and depression that comes with chronic pain.

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Healing magnets may seem like an attractive option. They're inexpensive, easy to use, and have no side effects. Believers in this therapy think the magnets help iron circulate in the blood and get joints the nutrition they need. But unlike its metal form, the iron in your body isn't magnetic. Wearing magnets has no physical effect on your blood or joints.

Same goes for copper bracelets. In your body, copper helps make red blood cells and aids in forming the collagen in bones and connective tissue. But copper bracelets don't transfer copper to the body. And adding more of the mineral won't ease joint inflammation.

Supplements

Glucosamine is a substance in your body and a supplement you can take. In your body, it's used to build cartilage. That’s the tough, flexible tissue that covers the ends of your bones at the joints. When osteoarthritis wears your cartilage down, taking glucosamine is thought to protect what's left. While there’s no solid evidence that it works, it’s a safe and inexpensive supplement. Ask your doctor about dosage.

Like glucosamine, chondroitin (also called chondroitin sulfate) naturally occurs in your body. It’s a molecule, and it's used as a supplement for OA, specifically in the finger, knee, hip, lower back, and face. Though it doesn't build new cartilage, it's had some promising results -- about 60% of the people who take it feel pain relief. It acts slowly in the body and has to be taken daily.

If you've heard good things about fish oil, check with your doctor before trying it. It’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids that can help with joint pain or tenderness. But it can be hard on your stomach … and your breath. Some versions of this supplement may contain toxic amounts of mercury or vitamin A, as well.

In Europe, a supplement called avocado-soybean unsaponifiables, or ASU, has had some success. Made from avocado oil and soybean oil, it's thought to keep OA from progressing as quickly.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on March 25, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Arthritis Foundation: "The Mind-Body Connection: Visualizing Better Health," “Acupuncture and Osteoarthritis,” “Electrical Stimulation for Knee Osteoarthritis,” “Magnets, Copper Don’t Ease RA.”

Mayo Clinic: "TENS therapy: An Option for Fibromyalgia Treatment?" “Osteoarthritis,” "Can Glucosamine Supplements Protect My Knee Cartilage From Osteoarthritis?" "Chondroitin sulfate: Background and Evidence."

University of Maryland Medical Center: "Copper."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Arthritis of the Shoulder."

American College of Rheumatology: "Herbal Remedies, Supplements & Acupuncture for Arthritis," “Avocado Soybean Unsaponifiables."

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