When you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), your immune system misfires and attacks your joints. The damage this causes makes your joints swell up and become painful and stiff.

Your doctor will likely prescribe disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) to slow joint damage. You might have also considered using complementary treatments along with these standard therapies.

Joint pain is one of the leading conditions that make people seek out complementary and alternative treatments.

Some complementary treatments for RA have evidence from scientific studies to back up their effectiveness. Others don’t have enough proof to confirm that they work.

Even a supposedly natural treatment can cause side effects or interact with other medications you take. Always talk to your doctor before trying any complementary therapy. Ask how the treatment might help you, and find out what side effects it could cause.

Herbal remedies and dietary supplements

A few over-the-counter supplements may offer relief from sore joints. Ask your doctor before you try any of these remedies to make sure that it’s safe for you.

Fish oil

Fish oil is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which help block inflammation in the body. Research finds that fish oil reduces joint pain and stiffness in people with RA, and helps them cut back on their use of pain relievers.

You can get fish oil by eating fatty fish like salmon or tuna, or by taking a supplement. The Arthritis Foundation recommends fish oil supplements that contain at least 30 percent EPA/DHA. Use caution if you take blood thinners because omega-3s can increase your bleeding risk.

Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)

Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is an omega-6 fatty acid. There is some evidence it might help bring down inflammation in people with RA. In one small study, participants had less joint pain and stiffness after six months of taking GLA.

Glucosamine and chondroitin

These supplements have become popular in the complementary treatment of osteoarthritis, but their benefits for RA are less certain. While some studies have found symptom relief with glucosamine and chondroitin, others have shown no effect.

Turmeric

This yellow powder gives Indian curries their distinctive hue. It’s also used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine to treat inflammatory conditions.

Most of the research on turmeric has been done on animals, making it hard to know how it might help humans. One small pilot study found that a curcumin product called BCM-95 reduced RA joint pain and swelling better than an NSAID.

“I’ve had good results from using a turmeric supplement daily. It was recommended by my chiropractor.” – Stacy Rodd
“I put my son on [a turmeric supplement] a few months ago because he has stomach issues from all his meds. He hasn’t had any stomach issues since. It has helped so much with the inflammation.” – Paula Hill

Cat’s claw

This herbal supplement has anti-inflammatory properties. It blocks tumor necrosis factor (TNF), similar to some biologic drugs used to treat RA. However, cat’s claw is most likely much less potent than biologic drugs.

In one small study, this supplement reduced joint swelling and pain by more than 50 percent compared to a placebo. More research is needed to confirm whether cat’s claw is an effective remedy for RA.

Exercise

In general, exercise is good for people with arthritis. It strengthens the muscles that support painful joints and promotes weight loss to take stress off those joints.

A few exercise programs, in particular, may be helpful for RA, including:

  • tai chi
  • yoga
  • swimming
“Yoga helps. Essential oils. These don’t cure anything but help me cope.” – Chandra Dalton

Acupuncture

Acupuncture uses thin needles placed strategically into the skin to treat a variety of health conditions. Although there’s good evidence to show that this treatment can ease chronic pain — like a sore back, neck, or knees — it hasn’t been proven to ease pain or bring down swollen joints in RA.

“Getting acupuncture treatments regularly helps greatly.” – Laura Robinett

Magnets

Magnet therapy is an easy and inexpensive therapy, but research on its use has so far been mixed. One study of 70 people with RA found magnetic wrist straps didn’t help with pain or stiffness.

Mind-body medicine

A few approaches may help manage RA symptoms and relieve some of the stress that can go along with having a chronic condition. These include:

  • mindfulness meditation
  • biofeedback
  • relaxation training

Incorporating these techniques might also help you cope better with your condition.

Diet

Of course, you should always follow a healthy diet. Avoid processed foods and consider decreasing your sugar intake, since sugar can cause inflammation. A few different diets have been proposed for reducing RA symptoms.

Fasting

In a few studies, people who ate a very limited amount of nutrients for about a week had less active immune cells and improved RA symptoms. One possible reason for the improvement was the removal of allergens from their diet.

Often when people go back to their old way of eating, their symptoms return. Fasting can be risky, so talk to your doctor before trying this approach.

Vegetarian/vegan

Removing most or all animal-based foods from the diet might help reduce pain and stiffness, and lower disease activity. Again, much of the benefit may come because you stop eating the allergens that are triggering your symptoms.

Mediterranean

The Mediterranean diet includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and fish, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other joint-friendly nutrients. In theory, eating this way should help bring down inflammation. Yet research hasn’t confirmed the benefit of eating a Mediterranean diet for RA.

Takeaway

These types of therapies can be helpful add-ons to your RA treatment plan. Using complementary therapies along with standard treatments is called integrative medicine.

Before you try any new treatment — traditional or complementary — ask your doctor whether it can help manage your disease, and what side effects it might cause.