Nature's Remedies for RA

Complementary and alternative medicine therapies for rheumatoid arthritis

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Are your rheumatoid arthritis drugs too expensive? Do you find it difficult to take your prescription each day? Does your medication leave you with too many side effects?

Or maybe you are finding that your drugs are not working like you had hoped. Whatever your situation may be, you might find yourself looking for natural therapies for your rheumatoid arthritis.

Drugs are not the only treatment option for people with rheumatoid arthritis. In some cases, patients also try natural treatments, which can range from dietary supplements like fish oils to mind-body therapies like tai chi.

While natural treatments should not replace your prescribed medication, they may be the extra ingredient you need to gain more control of your pain.

Here are some examples of natural treatments - also known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Talk to your doctor before adding any of these therapies to your treatment plan.

Dietary Supplements

Dietary and herbal supplements are often used by rheumatoid arthritis patients who want to try a different treatment option. At the moment, researchers are still studying whether supplements provide a clear benefit to patients. However, there is preliminary evidence that some supplements can improve pain and inflammation.

Fish Oils

Fish oils have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which the body uses to fight inflammation - one of the main characteristics of rheumatoid arthritis. Tuna, salmon, herring, and mackerel are all types of fish with high levels of omega-3s.

While more research is still needed, there is promising evidence that fish oil supplements can be beneficial to rheumatoid arthritis patients. Some studies have found that fish oil supplements may help ease pain in tender joints and reduce morning stiffness. In some cases, fish oil supplements may reduce the need for certain rheumatoid arthritis drugs, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Despite the possible benefits of fish oils, some people are concerned about the safety of fish oil supplements. Some species of fish have high levels of toxic substances like pesticides and mercury. Fish oil also may not mix well with other medications, including drugs to treat high blood pressure.

Plant Oils

Like fish oils, certain plants contain substances that may be beneficial to people with rheumatoid arthritis.

The seeds of borage, evening primrose, and black currant contain a fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). When someone consumes GLA, the body turns the fatty acid into another substance that brings down inflammation. Preliminary research suggests that GLA may reduce joint pain, stiffness, and tenderness. GLA also may reduce the need for NSAIDs. For the most part, GLAs seem safe to consume. However, some plant oils may mix poorly with other medications and can lead to liver damage.

Thunder god vine is another natural option for rheumatoid arthritis patients. Used for ages in traditional Chinese medicine, the herb may reduce inflammation and suppress the autoimmune responses. In other words, thunder god vine may treat the disease itself, rather than the symptoms. Some small studies have suggested that thunder god vine supplements may also relieve symptoms.

Other plant supplements - such as turmeric, boswellia (frankincense), ginger, and green tea extracts - may help people with rheumatoid arthritis. However, larger studies on humans are needed before it can be said that these plants offer clear benefits.

Dietary supplements are not the only thing you put in your body that may affect arthritis symptoms. Mark Bans, D.C., who was not involved in the study, notes, "One of the simplest things that people forget to do is to watch their everyday diet. Many people with rheumatoid arthritis can tell you that their arthritis flares up when they eat certain things. As a general rule, I would keep fast food, processed foods, junk food, and sugar/refined carbohydrates to an absolute minimum. Eating natural whole foods such as organic meats and vegetables is definitely the way to go as a basis for everyday living."

Mind-Body Therapies

The link between your mind and your body is strong. Your mental health can have a huge impact on your physical health, and vice versa. For many rheumatoid arthritis patients, reducing mental stress could be the key to relieving pain and living a better quality of life.

Mind-body therapies are a popular choice of alternative treatment for many patients. Some mind-body therapies focus more on the psychological aspects of having a disease, while others have more of a physical emphasis.

Relaxation, imagery therapy, and biofeedback are examples of mind-body therapies that may improve both the psychological and physical symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Research has suggested that these therapies not only reduce pain and improve function, but also make it easier for patients to cope with having a disease.

There is limited evidence that a strategy called mindfulness-based stress reduction can help fight depression associated with rheumatoid arthritis. This therapy may also make it easier for patients to cope with their disease.

Tai chi is another commonly used natural treatment among rheumatoid arthritis patients. For the most part, studies have not shown any clear improvements in joint pain, swelling, and tenderness among patients who practice tai chi. However, there is some evidence that tai chi may improve mood, quality of life, and overall function.

Although some rheumatoid arthritis patients have reported feeling sore when first learning tai chi, tai chi appears generally safe.


Exercise is one of the easiest and cheapest natural therapies for rheumatoid arthritis patients. It is a safe and effective way to reduce pain, build muscle, and increase flexibility.

At first, it may seem like exercise could hurt your arthritic joints. But you do not have to push yourself to the limits. A couple hours of moderate exercise each week may be all you need. If stiff joints are holding you back, it may be time to start exercising.

There are a number of exercises you can do to ease your pain and improve function. Flexibility, strengthening, and aerobic exercises are all beneficial activities for rheumatoid arthritis patients.

Aerobic exercises - such as walking, water exercises, and bicycling - are especially good for your overall health. They can improve your heart and lung health, increase muscle function, help keep your weight under control, and give you more energy. Aerobic exercises also can improve your mood and help you get a better night's sleep.

Current guidelines recommend that rheumatoid arthritis patients get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. If possible, patients should spread their exercise time throughout the week.

Heat and Cold

Doctors often recommend applying heat or cold to affected joints to relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Heat can reduce pain and relax tense muscles. Cold, on the other hand, can numb those painful joints. Cold can also reduce muscle spasms.


There are so many possible therapies for rheumatoid arthritis patients. You can put things in your body (supplements). Or you could do things with your body (exercise). When it comes down to it, one of the most important steps you can take for your arthritis is to relax.

Relaxing and reducing stress in your life can not only help to control pain, but may also improve your overall quality of life. Hypnosis, guided imagery, deep breathing, and muscle relaxation are all good methods for relaxation.

Working natural and CAM therapies into your treatment plan

While any of these natural therapies may one day become an integral part of rheumatoid arthritis treatment, it is important to remember that none of them have been supported by clear evidence. Talk to your doctor before starting any natural treatments.

Review Date: 
December 21, 2011