A Beginners Guide to RA: Alternative Medicine

Patient Expert

Have you ever tried acupuncture? Massage therapy? Do you take supplements? Chances are you're not relying exclusively on allopathic - i.e., Western-based - medicine, but are supplementing the care and prescriptions you receive from the medical system with other techniques and treatments. And if you aren't, you've probably thought about it.

It's becoming increasingly normal for people to turn to alternative medicine to improve their health. When you live with rheumatoid arthritis, there are treatments that can provide a real boost to your quality of life by helping you control pain and improve your general health. But how do you select the treatment that's right for you?

Do Your Research
Just as it's a good idea to research the medication recommended by your doctor to make sure it's the right choice for you, checking out the pros and cons of the alternative treatment you're considering is essential. For instance, did you know that it's not recommended for people with autoimmune diseases like RA to take Echinacea? Echinacea is an immune system booster and can create a flare.

Information is power and the more you know about the treatment or supplement, its history and how effective it is, the better you're able to make an informed decision. This is especially important when considering some of the more esoteric treatments, often touted as guaranteed "cures" on a website or late-night infomercial. Don't just read the product website -- check other, more objective websites and always consult your doctor. Keep in mind that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Choose Your Expert Carefully
Many people claim to be experts in various alternative treatments, but not all have the credentials to back it up. Alternative treatments are increasingly recognized by our Western health care system (and some, like acupuncture, are now used by doctors, physiotherapists, etc.). The more established and recognized a certain kind of treatment is, the greater the chances that its practitioners receive a thorough education in their craft. This means they will be knowledgeable about not just their own field, but also the allopathic treatments you receive. As well, the practice may be regulated and licensed on either the state or federal level. Look into the schools teaching the treatment, such as colleges of naturopathy, schools for registered massage therapy, schools of Chinese medicine, etc. (more links at the end of this article). Also check to see if your state or locality require any licensing for practitioners of various treatments. Search for people who are trained and whose license is in good standing

I can't tell you how often I've heard the statement "I want something natural. I don't want to put chemicals in my body," and I get it. We've been taught that chemicals are toxic and the list of side effects for RA drugs can make you want to curl up in a corner, sucking your thumb. However, "natural" doesn't mean a treatment or supplement is automatically safe with no side effects. Keep in mind, many allopathic medications are derived from plants, which are "natural." Also know that herbal medication is still medication and may interact with other drugs you're taking, increasing or decreasing their effect or potentially causing severe problems. This is why it's essential to find a licensed practitioner who understands his field and to discuss your alternative treatments with your rheumatologist. Be prepared that many rheumatologists may dismiss the supplements or treatments you're receiving - often, there simply isn't enough research done on alternative remedies to satisfy someone working in the Western medical field. However, certain supplements, such as vitamin D and cod liver oil, have been found to be beneficial for RA, so it's entirely likely that others will be studied more down the road. In the end, you may choose to proceed with complementary treatments despite your doctor's misgivings, but if you do choose this path, make sure you've done as much research as possible and have chosen your alternative practitioner carefully.

The Money Question
Unfortunately, and contrary to popular belief, alternative treatments can be expensive. Some treatments are used within the healthcare system -- you may receive acupuncture from your doctor or physiotherapist and the cost will be covered under insurance or within the practitioner's fee, for example. As well, some insurance policies cover massage treatments from a registered massage therapist or naturopath. You'll need to educate yourself about the pros and cons of treatment, find out which give you the most bang for your buck and choose accordingly. You should also check with your insurance provider to find practitioners and various treatments that are covered by your plan.

We have a number of posts in the reference area about alternative treatments:

Ayurvedic Medicine
Chinese Medicine
Massage Therapy

Cod liver oil

Gin-soaked raisins
Tart cherries
Vitamin D

Would you like more information about specific alternative therapies or treatments not listed above? Leave a comment and we'll include it in future posts.

You can read more of Lene's writing on The Seated View.