You’ll need to keep up with your usual medical care, but some natural remedies might help relieve pain and stiffness from rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Many of them are simple, like using heat and ice packs. Others, like acupuncture, need a trained pro.
If you want to try natural and home remedies, ask your doctor what would be most helpful for you and if there are any limits on what’s OK for you to try. If he gives you the go-ahead, you might want to look into some of these common treatments:
Heat and Cold
Cold: It curbs joint swelling and inflammation. Apply an ice pack to the affected joint during an RA flare-up, for instance. Just don't overdo it. Apply the cold compress for 15 minutes at a time. Take at least a 30-minute break between treatments.
Heat: It relaxes your muscles and spurs blood flow. You can use a moist heating pad or a warm, damp towel. Many people like using microwaveable hot packs. Don't go too hot. Your skin shouldn’t burn. You can also use heat therapy in the shower. Let the warm water hit the painful area on your body. That may help soothe it. A hot tub is another good way to relax stiff muscles. Just don’t use hot tubs or spas if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or are pregnant.
Magnet therapies come in a variety of forms, such as bracelets, necklaces, inserts, pads, or disks. You can find them at most natural food stores.
In people with knee and hip osteoarthritis, some early studies have shown they improved joint pain better than a placebo. Doctors don’t know exactly how magnets might relieve pain, and there’s no clear proof that they actually help people with rheumatoid arthritis.
This traditional form of Chinese medicine is one of the oldest natural pain remedies around. It uses super-fine needles to stimulate energy along pathways in your body called meridians. The goal is to correct imbalances of energy, or qi (pronounced “chee”). There isn’t a lot of research specific to RA, although studies do show it lowers levels of chemicals in your body linked to inflammation. It also helps with chronic pain, especially back pain. It may also help with osteoarthritis.
Since it involves needles that need to be clean and properly placed, ask your rheumatologist to recommend a practitioner who works with people that have RA.
This natural treatment doesn’t appear to affect pain levels or chemicals that cause inflammation. But it might boost your mood. One small study found lemon scent might boost your mood, but that’s about it. Essential oils can be a nice addition to a massage. Be careful if you apply them to your skin or let someone else do it. Some are known irritants. Try a test patch to see how you react. Don’t use it on broken or damaged skin.
This technique helps you learn to control automatic responses such as heart rate and blood pressure. You do it with sensors on your body, which send information to a monitor. A therapist teaches you how to control your reaction to stresses.
Take slow breaths from your belly. It can calm you and turn off the stress receptors that tighten your muscles and make pain worse. Plus, when you focus on your breathing, you take your brain away from thoughts about pain.
You may not feel like moving, but it’s good for you. It won’t make your RA worse, and it could lower the swelling in your joints and help ease your pain. Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist before you get started. They can help create the right program for you. It’ll probably focus on:
This natural remedy dates back thousands of years. But modern science does show it can help ease pain. There are many different types. You’ll want to talk to your doctor before you try it. You can also ask for recommendations. It’s good to get a massage therapist who’s worked with people that have RA. Let him know if you have any sore spots he needs to avoid. You can also ask him not to use scented products that could irritate your skin.
This technique can be as simple as focusing on your breathing and just noticing each inhale and exhale. It doesn’t require any spiritual beliefs, and it isn’t about being super-calm. Anyone can do it, and only a few minutes can make a difference. Your mind will almost certainly wander. That’s OK. Just return your attention to your breath, or whatever else you choose to focus on.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
To do this:
- Tighten and then relax the muscles in different parts of your body.
- Work your way down the body, starting with your face muscles, followed by your neck, arms, chest, back, belly, legs, and feet. Or work your way up from your feet.
- Breathe in as you contract your muscles.
- Breathe out when you let go.
This slow, gentle martial art is easy on your joints. You’ll stand and do a series of gentle movements that are easy to modify if your joints are sore. It can help with strength, flexibility, and balance. There isn’t enough research to know if it works to curb RA pain, but it may be something to try.
Thunder God Vine
A few studies have shown a drop in inflammation and tender joints in people with RA who take this supplement. A large government-funded study that compared this root with sulfasalazine, a traditional drug used to treat RA, found that symptoms improved more with the use of thunder god vine. Side effects may include stomach upset, headache, hair loss, upper respiratory tract infections, and sterility in men. Pregnant women and women at risk of getting osteoporosis should not take it.
Keep in mind that it’s hard to get safe and high-quality thunder god vine made in the U.S. The safety and effectiveness of thunder god vine from outside the U.S., such as from China, can't be verified according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Topical Creams, Gels, and Patches
You might not think of a pain rub as a natural remedy, but many of these products are made from capsaicin, the ingredient that makes chili peppers hot. Studies show it can help ease RA pain. Don’t use it along with a heating pad. It makes burns more likely.
This golden spice found in many curries is a member of the ginger family. It hails from India and Indonesia and has been a staple in traditional medicine in that part of the world for centuries. Research shows it blocks proteins that cause inflammation and may ease pain as well as some nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) commonly used to treat RA.
- Close your eyes.
- Breathe deeply.
- Picture yourself in a quiet, peaceful place.
This mix of low-impact exercise, breathing, and meditation was developed in India some 5,000 years ago. It’s good for your body and mind. It can ease joint pain, improve your flexibility, and zap stress and tension. Studies show it can lower chemicals that cause inflammation and stress. Just talk to your doctor to make sure it’s OK for you before you dive in. Work with them to find an instructor that knows how to handle people with RA.
A Warning About Supplements
A few RA studies show that certain supplements and natural remedies can help. But the research is still in its early stages, so the bottom line isn’t clear yet.