Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments for osteoarthritis (OA) usually target:
- reducing pain
- alleviating stiffness
- decreasing swelling
Many people use such therapies alongside more traditional treatments. As is often the case, there is little research to support many CAM treatments for OA. Research on CAM is generally much less extensive than that on conventional clinical treatment options.
Many people have had success in using CAM to manage OA. However, talk to your doctor before trying any CAM treatments. You need to make certain the methods are safe and right for you.
A number of herbs and supplements have been investigated as possible OA treatments. Most of them work by reducing inflammation.
It is important to discuss any supplements with your doctor before you begin use. They can potentially interact with other medications. Just because something is natural does not mean it is safe.
Glucosamine and Chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin are the building blocks of cartilage. Cartilage is the substance that covers and protects joints. In people with OA, cartilage becomes damaged and degraded with use and time.
Both glucosamine and chondroitin are available as dietary supplements. The research is mixed on their use for patients with OA. Many studies have shown that these supplements are no more effective than placebos.
Side effects for these supplements are generally absent or mild. However, there are important exceptions. Both supplements can interfere with blood thinners, such as warfarin (Coumadin). In addition, people with shellfish allergies should not take glucosamine.
Turmeric has been used for years in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. It’s known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Preliminary studies in the United States suggest that turmeric can be effective at reducing joint inflammation. However, research is still limited.
Vitamin C and Fish Oil
Vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) have tentatively been shown to reduce inflammation in joints. However, the data on their efficacy is mixed. There has been more research on the use of fish oil for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) than for OA.
Avocado Soybean Unsaponifiables
Avocado soybean unsaponifiables have been shown to be effective at reducing arthritis symptoms in multiple studies. However, most research has been focused on RA, not OA.
Cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) is from the dried root bark of a woody vine found in Peru. It’s believed to have anti-inflammatory properties. Several studies have found that it reduces joint swelling in people with arthritis.
Mind/body therapies may help with OA pain. These treatments do not have the side effects associated with many medications. For example, narcotics may be prescribed for people with intense OA pain. These medications carry the risk of dependence and side effects such as nausea, constipation, and drowsiness. Even medications that are not as strong, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories drugs (NSAIDs), can cause an upset stomach and damage to the liver and kidneys in some people.
Acupuncture uses fine needles that are inserted at various points on the skin. It has been shown to reduce many types of pain, including that caused by OA. However, it’s difficult to do acupuncture research. Therefore, the scientific community questions its effectiveness.
Guidelines suggest using massage to relieve pain and stiffness in arthritic joints. Evidence suggests that massage decreases:
- stress hormones
- muscle pain
However, recent studies of the uses of massage have not confirmed its efficacy for treating OA.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) utilizes a small device to produce mild electrical pulses. These pulses stimulate nerves near the aching joint. Scientists think that the TENS pulses interfere with pain signals traveling to the brain. Some evidence suggests that TENS may be effective at reducing OA pain.
Ultrasound uses high-energy sound waves. These can breakdown scar tissue and improve blood flow to damaged tissues. This technique is usually performed by a physical or occupational therapist. Evidence of its efficacy is mixed.
Alternative treatments can be effective complements to a traditional treatment plan. However, you should always check with your doctor before trying any new treatments to be sure they’re safe and right for you. Just because they’re natural doesn’t mean they won’t interfere with your current treatment plan.