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Alternative Therapies for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Healthy lifestyle choices are key to living well with RA.
WebMD Magazine

While researchers continue to develop medications to help people with rheumatoid arthritis, many patients and doctors are also exploring alternative therapies for the disease, including yoga, diet, and exercise. And they’re finding these therapies can make a big difference.

Once a month, Sheila Williams, a 49-year-old audiologist from Cleveland, Ohio, lies down on a flat table, closes her eyes, and lets someone she hardly knows stick hair-thin metal needles along her body. Williams has had rheumatoid arthritis since 2002, and the acupuncture makes her feel better.

“I have been going for acupuncture for the past year, and it has really helped with the pain and given me more energy,” Williams (not her real name) tells WebMD. Often, RA is marked by flares of heightened joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. “I can go in for acupuncture with a flare-up and within 24 hours after, I am usually feeling pretty good,” she says.

Williams is among the growing number of people with this autoimmune disease who find that engaging in alternative therapies such as acupuncture and yoga -- along with eating healthy meals, maintaining a normal weight, and exercising -- can help ease symptoms and augment the effect of RA medications.

Studies on the use of acupuncture in RA have had mixed results. But the latest pilot study found that people with RA who underwent 14 sessions of acupuncture over six weeks showed improvements in disease activity, pain, number of red and swollen joints, and overall quality of life.

“There are lots of very good medications for RA, but lifestyle changes and alternative therapies like acupuncture can really help to manage day-to-day activities,” says M. Elaine Husni, MD, MPH, vice chair of rheumatology and director of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Center at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio.


The Role of Healthy Eating in RA Management

Other tried-and-true lifestyle changes can help people with RA better manage their disease and their lives. For example, even though there is no miracle diet for RA, eating lots of fruits and veggies and few saturated fats can help improve overall health.

Some research shows that fish oil supplements can help reduce inflammation, says Susan J. Bartlett, PhD, an associate professor of medicine and licensed clinical psychologist at the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center in Baltimore. “There are not enough data to make a recommendation about how much fish to eat or fish oil to take just yet, but it may very well be helpful,” Bartlett says.

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