Arthritis symptoms can keep you from going about your everyday activities. The pain and swelling (inflammation) may still persist despite medical intervention. In an effort to gain relief and take a “natural” approach, more arthritis patients are seeking herbal remedies than ever before. Certain herbs may have anti-inflammatory properties that can help with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), as well as the ability to reduce pain in all forms of the disease. Still, there is a lack ofscientific evidence supporting such claims. Before you treat arthritis the “natural” way, make sure you talk to a doctor first to avoid potentially life-threatening side effects.
Aloe vera is one of the most commonly used herbs in alternative medicine. Known for its healing properties, it is popular for treating small skin abrasions. You may already have a bottle of aloe vera gel in the medicine cabinet from a past experience with sunburn for pain relief. This same type of product may be applied topically to soothe achy joints.
This herb is also available in whole form from the leaves of the plant. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) says that oral aloe vera can cause decreased blood sugar and gastrointestinal side effects, such as diarrhea. Topical aloe vera, on the other hand, does not cause any side effects.
Boswellia is praised by alternative medicine practitioners for its anti-inflammatory capabilities. It is derived from the gum of boswellia trees, which are indigenous to India. Also called frankincense, this herb is thought to work by blocking leukotrienes. Leukotrienes are substances that can attack healthy joints in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. The NCCAM acknowledges promising evidence of boswellia in animal studies, but notes a lack of human trials. Boswellia is available in tablet form, as well as topical creams.
Cat’s claw is another anti-inflammatory herb that may reduce swelling in arthritis. This herb is from a tropical vine, and its usage dates back to Inca civilizations. Traditionally, cat’s claw is used to boost your immune system. In recent years, the immunity powers of the herb have been tried in arthritis. The downside is that cat’s claw may overstimulate the immune system, potentially making arthritis pain worse. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), studies have shown that cat’s claw can help with osteoarthritis pain and RA swelling. However, there’s no proof that this herb can prevent further joint damage.
Like aloe vera, eucalyptus is widely available in western markets. It is used in oral medications, and topical oil extracts are used for a variety of conditions. Topical forms of eucalyptus leaves are used to treat arthritis pain. These plant leaves contain tannins, which may be helpful in reducing swelling and the resulting pain that arthritis causes. Some users follow up with heat pads to maximize the effects of eucalyptus on swollen joints.
You may have ginger in your spice cabinet for cooking, but this herb is also a staple in many alternative medicine cabinets. The same compounds that give ginger its strong flavor are also the same ones that have anti-inflammatory properties. The NCCAM says that early studies in reducing joint swelling with ginger in RA are promising. However, limited human trials have yet to prove the effectiveness of this treatment.
Green tea is one of the most popular beverages in the world, and has even been used to reduce inflammation in the body. It is possible that green tea can be used to treat arthritis inflammation in the form of beverages, tablets, or tinctures. The NCCAM found in a 2010 study that green tea might help both osteoarthritis and RA patients. Many more studies are needed to prove the potential benefits of green tea.
Thunder god vine is one of the oldest herbs used in Chinese medicine. Extracts from skinned roots are known for suppressing an overactive immune system, making thunder god vine a possible alternative candidate for treatment of autoimmune diseases such as RA. It is best used in topical form applied directly to the skin. Thunder god vine may work best when used with conventional RA medications. Use extreme caution with this herb, as it can be poisonous if extracts are derived from other areas of the vine.
Used in cooking to make curry, turmeric is a yellow powder made from the related flowering plant. Unlike other types of herbs, NCCAM has found that turmeric may work best in fighting joint pain when it is taken orally. Lab studies on rats have also found that this herb may slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis. While relief may have been seen in animals, few human studies have been conducted with turmeric.
Willow bark is one of the longest-used herbs in treating inflammation. In fact, patients during Hippocrates’ time chewed on willow bark to help treat inflammatory conditions. UMMC reports that the herb shows promise in relieving osteoarthritis-related joint pain, particularly in the knees, back, hips, and neck. This treatment is taken orally, either by tea or tablet. Getting the right dose is crucial, as an overdose can cause rashes and other forms of inflammation.
Given the increased prevalence of herbal medicine, conventional doctors are more willing to assess the benefits of alternative remedies. When treating arthritis, some of these herbs may complement your current medications. It’s important to understand, however, that herbs can even cause serious side effects.
Discuss all arthritis treatment options with your doctor and don’t stop taking prescribed medications unless instructed. Also, keep in mind that complementary medicine isn’t exclusive to herbal supplements. Other complementary approaches to arthritis pain relief include:
- ice or heat packs
- aerobic exercise
- healthy diet