Copper: An ancient medicine

Copper was the first metal ever used by humans. Middle Eastern artisans of the 5th and 6th millennia B.C. fashioned this lustrous, orange-red element into:

  • jewelry
  • tools
  • vessels
  • utensils
  • weapons

Besides being useful as a metal, copper also kills or inhibits the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms. The “Edwin Smith Papyrus,” one of the oldest books ever discovered, records the use of copper to sterilize chest wounds and drinking water. This book was written sometime between 2600 B.C. and 2200 B.C.

Copper is present in the human body as a mineral in trace amounts. It helps the body use iron and supports nerve function. Copper is essential for the following bodily functions:

  • iron utilization
  • nerve function
  • enzyme systems
  • energy production
  • skin pigmentation

Copper is found in many foods, including:

  • nuts
  • potatoes
  • green vegetables
  • shellfish
  • beef liver
  • chocolate

Wearing a copper bracelet as a remedy for arthritis has been popular in folklore for thousands of years. Even today, you may be able to find inexpensive copper bracelets displayed on drugstore counters.

But how does copper work? Sellers claim that tiny amounts of copper rub off the bracelet onto the skin, which absorbs it into the body. They claim the copper helps regrow joint cartilage that has been lost because of arthritis, which helps cure the ailment and relieves pain.

A study published in the journal PLOS One did not substantiate claims about copper bracelets helping heal arthritis. In the study, participants wore one of three bracelets:

  • copper bracelet
  • magnetic wrist strap
  • placebo bracelets and wrist straps that were neither copper nor magnetized

The participants were not told which type of bracelet they were given.

Each week, scientists checked the participants for signs of trouble in their joints. They noted any swelling, redness, and pain and also ran weekly blood tests. The participants answered questions about any pain they had. Researchers also considered participants’ medications and level of disease activity.

The study concluded that neither copper bracelets nor magnetic wrist straps had any more effect on arthritis than the placebos.

It’s possible that some people who wear copper and feel positive health effects are experiencing a placebo effect. A placebo is a stand-in, or “dummy,” treatment designed to deceive a recipient. Researchers use placebos to control experiments because placebos are supposed to be ineffective as a treatment for a condition. When researchers use a placebo, and it actually improves the condition, it’s called “the placebo effect.”

Scientists don’t know for sure why the placebo effect happens. It may be because the subject simply believes that the fake treatment can make them feel better.

Scientific research doesn’t support copper bracelets as a treatment for arthritis. That being said, wearing one couldn’t hurt!

Other complementary remedies that may help include dietary and herbal supplements, such as:

  • glucosamine and chondroitin
  • boswellia
  • aloe vera
  • cat’s claw
  • eucalyptus
  • cinnamon

Keep in mind that there is little governmental regulation or oversight of companies that sell herbal remedies. There are no guarantees that the herbs are what the sellers say they are or that they will work. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) warns that researchers have found little evidence that dietary supplements or herbal remedies help relieve osteoarthritis symptoms or its cause.

Some complementary physical therapies have been found to help arthritis. The most promising one, according to the NCCIH, is acupuncture. Sufficient clinical trials for the others have not yet been conducted. The therapies include:

  • massage
  • acupuncture
  • yoga
  • qi gong
  • tai chi

One reason to be skeptical of folk remedies for arthritis is that there are more than 100 different forms of arthritis. There are many different causes of arthritis, too. For example, osteoarthritis is caused by wear and tear on the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease and doesn’t have a known cause. Gout, a very painful type of arthritis, is caused by a buildup of uric acid crystals in joints. All of these types of arthritis have different causes and different treatments. Folk remedies may not take all of the different types into consideration.

All types of arthritis can be painful and debilitating. Some, like rheumatoid arthritis, can’t be cured. However, many powerful medicines can help treat arthritis and relieve pain.

Living a healthy lifestyle is good for arthritis, too. All of the following practices can help:

  • eat healthy foods
  • exercise
  • avoid or limit alcohol
  • don’t smoke

Although research does not back up claims linking copper bracelets to arthritis relief, there are other treatment options for arthritis. Talk to your doctor about whether these measures might help:

  • medication
  • healthy lifestyle choices
  • complementary therapies