Alternative treatments for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) focus on reducing pain and lowering stress levels or using natural substances to reduce inflammation.

Herbs and Supplements

There are three herbs and supplements available over the counter that have proven effective for RA in clinical trials:

Fish Oil

Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil has been shown to lower levels of inflammation when consumed regularly. A clinical trial found that fish-oil supplements may reduce morning stiffness and the need for pain-relieving drugs in RA patients.

Gamma Linoleic Acid (GLA)

This fatty acid is found in the oil from seeds of several plants, including evening primrose, borage, and black currant. Preliminary research shows that GLA can reduce joint pain and stiffness in RA patients. Learn more about gamma linoleic acid.

Thunder God Vine

This plant is often used in traditional Chinese medicine. Small clinical trials have found that it can reduce inflammation and suppress the immune system, whose overactivity is responsible for RA.

Other Herbs and Supplements

The following herbs and supplements have shown promise in lab tests and animal studies, but have not yet been the subject of clinical trials:

  • There is evidence that green tea may reduce the symptoms of both RA and osteoarthritis (a very common condition of joint damage caused by physical wear and tear).
  • Researchers have found anti-inflammatory substances in ginger, but no studies have yet been done on ginger and RA.
  • Curcumin, a chemical component of turmeric, has been found to protect the joints from inflammation and damage in animal studies.
  • A resin produced by certain varieties of the plant boswellia, also called frankincense, has shown anti-inflammatory and immune-suppression effects in lab tests.

Mind-Body Techniques

Techniques like meditation, guided imagery, relaxation, and biofeedback have all shown potential in studies to reduce pain and to improve physical function and mood in RA patients. Other studies have looked at tai chi, a Chinese martial art combining slow, gentle movements with deep breathing exercises. Tai chi did not reduce pain or inflammation, but it improved mood and overall physical function.

Diet

In small clinical trials, fasting, a vegetarian diet, and a Mediterranean diet (a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish, and olive oil and low in red meat and dairy) have all been shown to help with RA symptoms. However, more research is needed on the exact components of these diets that help, and how best to use diet for RA treatment.

Acupuncture

This traditional Chinese medicine technique of placing very thin needles in specific places on the body has been found effective in treating various types of chronic pain. There have not yet been any studies done on acupuncture and RA specifically, but its pain-relieving properties are very promising.

Balneotherapy

This is the technique of bathing in heated spring, mineral or tap water, to improve health. Preliminary studies in Europe and Israel have found benefits for RA patients, specifically a reduction in pain and stiffness, but larger, better-designed trials are still needed.