Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments for osteoarthritis (OA) usually target:

  • pain
  • stiffness
  • swelling

Many people use such therapies alongside more traditional treatments. As is often the case, there’s 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.

Possible OA treatments may include a number of herbs and supplements. Most of them work by reducing inflammation. Studies show that some of these supplements may be effective in helping the symptoms of OA. Further research is being done to reach a more solid conclusion.

While some research suggests there may be health benefits, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t monitor the purity or quality of supplements. You should discuss any supplements with your doctor before you start using them. Some herbs and supplements may interact with other medications you’re taking. While most supplements are natural, that doesn’t mean they’re safe.

Glucosamine and chondroitin

Glucosamine and chondroitin help build cartilage. Cartilage is a substance that covers your joints to protect them. OA causes cartilage to become damaged and degraded with use and time.

Both glucosamine and chondroitin are available as dietary supplements. The research is mixed on their use for those with OA. Current research seems to indicate that these supplements have limited or no effectiveness in the treatment of OA and its symptoms.

Side effects of 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 shouldn’t take glucosamine.

Turmeric

Turmeric has been used for years in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. It’s known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Preliminary studies suggest that turmeric can be effective at reducing or preventing joint inflammation. However, research is still limited.

Vitamin C and fish oil

Vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil have tentatively been shown to reduce inflammation in joints. However, the data on their efficacy is mixed. There’s been more research on the use of fish oil for rheumatoid arthritis than for OA.

Avocado-soybean unsaponifiables

Avocado-soybean unsaponifiables were shown to be effective at reducing OA symptoms in one study. However, more research needs to be done.

Cat’s claw

Cat’s claw comes 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 may not have the side effects associated with many medications. However, all mind-body approaches may not be suitable for everyone with OA.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture uses fine needles inserted at various points on your skin. Many believe that it helps to reduce many types of pain, including pain from OA. However, it’s difficult to do acupuncture research. Therefore, the scientific community questions its effectiveness.

Massage

Guidelines suggest using massage to relieve pain and stiffness in arthritic joints. Many believe that massage decreases:

  • stress hormones
  • depression
  • muscle pain
  • spasms
  • insomnia

However, the uses of massage haven’t been confirmed in its efficacy for treating OA in scientific studies.

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 studies show that TENS may be effective at reducing OA pain.

Ultrasound

Ultrasound uses high-energy sound waves. For physical therapy and treatment of OA, ultrasound is used to generate heat. This heat improves the flow of blood through the tendons and joints to increase the healing process.

This causes a reduction of pain and other OA symptoms. This technique can be 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.

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