Alternative Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Medically Reviewed

People with rheumatoid arthritis often turn to therapies that are outside the medical mainstream, especially when conventional medications are not working or are causing troubling side effects. But few of these nontraditional treatments have been evaluated in well-designed studies.

If you try any alternative or complementary treatments, tell your doctor. Do not stop your regular therapies without your doctor’s advice. Which nontraditional therapies are safe to try? Many of the recommendations discussed in the section on osteoarthritis also apply to rheumatoid arthritis.

Findings from a few small studies suggest that gamma linolenic acid (GLA) and fish-oil supplements may be helpful for rheumatoid arthritis. GLA is found in borage oil, evening primrose oil and black currant oil. The usual dosage is approximately 1,800 mg a day.

The active ingredients in fish oil are omega-3 fatty acids. The usual daily dosage is 3 grams a day. Both GLA and fish oil may cause bleeding in people taking warfarin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Evening primrose oil can lead to gastrointestinal symptoms such as indigestion, nausea, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Fish oil can cause indigestion, bad breath and nosebleeds. Nausea and diarrhea may occur at high doses.

Because these supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, lack of standardization and contamination are potential problems. The safest bet is to purchase supplements that meet U.S. Pharmacopeia standards (look for the USP symbol). You also can check with ConsumerLab, an independent organization that tests supplements for a fee paid by manufacturers and provides the results of its testing to subscribers.