There’s no cure for rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but there are effective treatments to help you manage symptoms. Experts advise people to consult with a rheumatologist to determine the best medications for their individual condition.
That’s good advice. But even if you rely on pharmaceutical drugs, there are a variety of natural, holistic, and complementary ways to help treat your RA. I’m very aware of these holistic methods because I use many of them myself.
Here are my personal top 10 favorite natural ways to combat RA symptoms and live a healthful lifestyle of wellness, even while I cope with RA.
Essential oils and aromatherapy have been used since ancient times — ever hear of frankincense and myrrh? They’re often used to soothe the symptoms of conditions such as RA.
I find lavender works well for relaxation. Peppermint and eucalyptus help me with pain relief. I’ve tried garlic oil because it’s thought to have
There’s another great essential oil-based product that I rely on called Deep Blue Rub. It’s a topical pain relief salve.
Always be mindful of how you use essential oils. Pay attention to any instructions or warnings on the product’s package, and consult an expert or the manufacturer when in doubt. Some oils shouldn’t be ingested or used topically. Many essential oils are designed for use in an aromatherapy diffuser.
Typically, I use oils topically and aromatically for my own needs. Topically, they often help with pain. Aromatically, they help relax me and improve my mood.
While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with a healthcare professional before you begin using essential oils and be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.
Floatation therapy, also known as sensory deprivation therapy, is a new trend in natural health treatments.
During a session, you float atop warm, high density salt water in a pitch-black and soundproof “pod.” The idea is that it relaxes the mind and body, releases muscle tension, and takes pressure off the joints.
I can say only good things about it. My husband — who’s a personal trainer and American Ninja Warrior competitor — just went last week and is also a fan. Many people in my Arthritis Ashley online community have also commented on the benefits of floating.
It’s wonderful, but proceed with caution if you’re a little claustrophobic, like I am. It takes some getting used to — but I get bad muscle spasms, so I’m all for anything that may relieve some tension!
Cryotherapy and ice baths might sound uncomfortable, but they may be good for people with musculoskeletal chronic pain and inflammatory conditions, such as RA. In fact, cryotherapy was first invented with people with RA in mind!
During a cryotherapy session, you step into a cryosauna tank that’s filled with liquid nitrogen. Your body is exposed to temperatures below –200ºF (–128.9ºC) — yes, you read that correctly! You’re mostly nude, save for undergarments, socks, mitts, and gloves.
This is done ideally for a duration of 2 to 3 minutes, or for however long you can tolerate it. I lasted for fewer than 2 minutes the first time and closer to 3 minutes the second time.
The idea behind cryotherapy is to put your body into “repair” mode as part of your natural fight-or-flight process. You’ve probably heard you should ice a swollen joint or an injury.
This method applies that same anti-inflammatory cooling concept, but to your whole body. The lack of any moisture, dampness, humidity, or wind makes the cold temperature more tolerable.
To me, cryotherapy was far more pleasant than an ice bath would be — and I liked it better than our cold Pittsburgh winters! I don’t know how much it worked, but I definitely left feeling refreshed and invigorated, like I could conquer the world.
Herbal tea can have many soothing benefits. Many people who live with RA choose teas such as green tea, ginger tea, turmeric tea, and blueberry tea. Some companies even make “arthritis-friendly” or “joint comfort” herbal teas.
I drink multiple cups of tea per day, including chamomile or Sleepytime tea at night to help me relax before bed. I can’t go without my tea!
Acupuncture is an ancient remedy that has stood the test of time. It’s a part of traditional Chinese medicine but has made its way into Western medicine as well.
During an acupuncture session, an acupuncturist uses very thin needles on certain points of your body. Usually, the needles aren’t inserted very deeply.
Each needle coordinates with a body part, system, or organ. The needles are thought to balance out or interrupt the flow of good and bad energy in the body, also known as the body’s chi (or qi).
Acupuncture is somewhat related to the practice of acupressure. (They’re cousins, of sorts.) While modern-day science hasn’t confirmed that acupuncture works as a treatment for RA, some doctors recommend it.
It isn’t clear why, but some people with RA report feeling better after acupuncture or acupressure treatments.
I absolutely love it and recommend it — so long as you go to a certified practitioner. For me, it isn’t scary and it isn’t painful. I visualize it releasing toxins and allowing “good vibes” to soak into my body!
I definitely feel like it helps with pain, stress, and overall health.
The notion of chiropractic for RA is a tricky one — and it isn’t for everyone. Some rheumatologists and people with RA will advise against seeing a chiropractor. Others are fine with it.
I like it in moderation, but some people don’t. It’s up to the individual and their doctor to decide if it’s a good option.
Most chiropractors advise against having chiropractic treatments during an RA flare-up, especially on the neck. I do engage in treatments, but not on my neck because I had neck surgery in 2011.
I find that mild chiropractic work in moderation and for maintenance purposes can be a great source of pain relief for me.
I can usually tell when my body is in need of a chiropractic tune-up. If you decide to try this option, just make sure to speak with your doctor first. If your doctor approves, make sure to do your homework and find a reputable chiropractor.
For me, physical therapy (PT) is a godsend. In the past, exercise was off-limits for folks dealing with RA. Nowadays it’s wholly embraced by most doctors. I wish I had started physical therapy back in middle school when I was first diagnosed!
Like many people living with RA, I find that I feel better with moderate activity. A mild exercise regimen, along with PT as needed, helps keep my joints mobile and my muscles strong and nimble.
PT is also important after some types of surgeries.
I had my knee replaced in September 2017, and I still look forward to going to PT three times per week, for 2 hours or more per session. I do 1 hour of hydrotherapy in the pool — including a cool aqua treadmill — and then about 1 hour on land. This includes weight-bearing and range-of-motion exercises.
I really enjoy it. PT has inspired me to want to keep moving!
I don’t know how I would manage without my monthly 90-minute deep tissue massage. Many people with RA find various types of massages helpful. As with chiropractic work, massage should be done only as tolerated.
There are different types of massages, including hot stone massages, relaxing spa-like massages, trigger point massages, deep tissue massages, and more. You could get a massage done in a spa or salon setting, at a physical therapist’s office, or at a chiropractic clinic.
I personally have a monthly membership to a massage and wellness center and go to the same massage therapist each time. This routine is important for my self-care with RA.
I use both infrared heat therapy and LED light therapy. Both options use different types of heat and light to reduce inflammation in the body. A good ol’ microwavable heating pad can do the trick, too!
If you’re looking into infrared heat therapy, I personally use and recommend Thermotex products.
Biofeedback and meditation go hand in hand. There are CDs, podcasts, and apps to help anyone learn how to meditate. Some even cater to those with chronic pain.
Through biofeedback and pain management meditation, I’ve learned how to shift my focus away from pain.
It also helps me ease stress and anxiety. I’ve tried guided meditation via a CD that my neurologist recommended for pain management. I’ve also used a Muse brain-sensing headband. Both are worth a try in my opinion.
It’s always a good idea to consult with a doctor or an expert before trying natural approaches to managing your health. The different options that I’ve discussed can generally be used along with prescription medications — but it’s still a good idea to check.
I personally prefer a mix of traditional and natural approaches to my health. I believe that an integrative and translational, whole person approach of mind, body, and spirit is best.
I take meds when needed, but I try to use natural options whenever I can. A nutritious diet is also very important for a healthy lifestyle while living with RA.
It’s important to remember that every person who has RA is unique. What works for one person may not work for another.
Sometimes we have to rely on trial and error, along with good medical advice, to see what works for us. Once we find what works, all the time and effort spent on our journey to wellness should be worth it.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on February 2, 2018. Its current publication date reflects a new medical review.
Ashley Boynes-Shuck is a published author, health coach, and patient advocate. Known online as Arthritis Ashley, she blogs at arthritisashley.com and abshuck.com, and writes for Healthline.com. Ashley also works with the Autoimmune Registry and is a member of the Lions Club. She’s written three books: “Sick Idiot,” “Chronically Positive,” and “To Exist.” Ashley lives with RA, JIA, OA, celiac disease, and more. She resides in Pittsburgh with her Ninja Warrior husband and their five pets. Her hobbies include astronomy, birdwatching, traveling, decorating, and going to concerts.