Looking for new ways to soothe your stiff joints and other rheumatoid arthritis symptoms? Therapies like acupuncture, massage, or tai chi could help. About two out of three people with RA try these kinds of treatments, known as complementary therapies.
Complementary therapies may help ease your pain, relax you, and improve your life. Here's a look at which ones might help -- and how to use them safely.
How to Use Complementary Therapies
The most important thing to know if you try one of these therapies: It can support your regular RA treatment, but it shouldn't take the place of it.
"Some complementary treatments can really help, but only with your medication, not instead of it," says M. Elaine Husmi, MD, MPH, director of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Center at the Cleveland Clinic.
Why? Without meds, you can get lifelong joint damage within the first few years of having RA, or even sooner. As healthy as a "natural" or drug-free treatment may sound, there just aren't any that can do what medication can do for RA.
Complementary Therapies for RA
So what are some of these treatments that could help?
- Acupuncture. A few studies have found that this practice of inserting hair-thin needles into your skin to relieve pain can help with RA. But the findings are mixed. The risks of acupuncture are low, though, so it's probably fine to have it done. "I've seen acupuncture work quite well in some patients," Husmi says.
- Limited diet. Some people with RA hope that diet changes -- like fasting, gluten-free, and veganism -- will help. But there's no proof that any special way of eating helps your RA. Some diets may cut out crucial vitamins or minerals or be a problem for other reasons.
- Massage. There's a little research showing that massage could help your RA. It certainly can help you relax.
- Meditation. Focusing your mind can help you relax and reduce stress. But studies of using meditation for RA have had mixed findings. In one, people doing “mindfulness meditation” seemed to cope with pain better. This type of meditation is aimed at becoming more aware and living in the present moment.
- Tai chi. "Tai chi can be perfect for people with RA," says Ruchi Jain, MD, assistant professor of rheumatology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "It's slow and doesn't put too much stress on the joints." Studies haven’t found that it relieves pain or swelling. But this blend of gentle martial arts postures and deep breathing seems to help mood and may boost your strength and stamina to do daily tasks.
- Yoga. Some studies have found that yoga stretches may help day-to-day function and ease your swollen, painful joints. Just be careful. "If you have RA in your wrist or hands, yoga can be very hard on your joints," says Stanley Cohen, MD, co-director of the division of rheumatology at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. Check with a doctor first. You may want a yoga class just for people with arthritis or other conditions.