The Truth About Natural Pain Management for RA
Everywhere you turn (or click), there’s a cream, a pill, or a procedure claiming to ease the aches and pains of rheumatoid arthritis. But how do you decide what’s worth trying? To make things a little easier, we’ve gathered feedback from RA warriors (and the doctors who treat them) on the efficacy of some popular and trendy RA therapies that—when used alongside traditional RA prescriptions—just might provide you with some sweet relief.
Where Do You Start?
Most docs kick things off with a work-up that includes clinical history, a physical exam, lab tests, and sometimes imaging studies to confirm diagnosis. “From there I tend to recommend a comprehensive pain plan that involves ongoing visits [with a rheumatologist], non-pharmacological interventions such as meditation and non-opioid pharmacological therapy to help with discomfort and promote activity,” says Brian LaMoreaux M.D., a rheumatologist and medical director for Horizon Therapeutics in Chicago, IL. “It's often highly useful to involve physical therapy and occupational therapy for exercises tailored to specific pain areas, functional status, and goals for improvement.”
But, Does It Work…Really?
Yes…probably. The thing is, RA is a complicated lifelong disease and you'll likely go through different phases and stages that require different tools in your toolbox. So, being open to combining meds with alternative, holistic approaches is often encouraged. The only caveat is that you keep your rheumatologist in the loop of your pain management to make sure you understand the potential benefits and risks.
A lack of oxygen in the joints, or hypoxia, is characteristic of RA and can worsen joint inflammation and stiffness. Massage releases the tightness by increasing oxygen-rich blood flow, this in turn reduces pain and inflammation. Once flowing, oxygen’s anti-inflammatory properties get to work soothing your flareup. A study by the University of Miami School of Medicine found that weekly, moderate pressure massage alleviates pain, increases grip strength, and improves joint motion.
I tried it! “After a treatment my muscles feel looser, I feel more energized, stress both physical and mental has melted away, and I have a better sense of wellbeing.” -Eileen Davidson, 35, Vancouver, BC
The physical manipulation of stiff joints “provides motion that stimulates blood flow to the soft tissue, which decreases swelling and increases flexibility,” says Nicole M. Bailey, DOC, a chiropractor at Bailey Family Chiropractic in Downingtown, PA. A chiropractic adjustment also helps release neurochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin that lower the body’s inflammatory response and speed up the processing of toxins.
I tried it! “I was having [RA] jaw pain so badly despite medications, that yawning would bring me to tears. After my first [chiropractor] appointment I could open my mouth again and my jaw was probably 85% better within minutes.” -Diane Jack, 36, from Titusville, Florida
“Acupuncture is ‘conditionally recommended’ (which just means the benefits outweigh the risks) by the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) for hip, knee, and hand osteoarthritis,” says Dr. LaMoreaux. It’s also used regularly for RA. How does it work? Acupuncture revs up chemicals that can reduce swelling, which then reduces aches and pains.
I tried it! “I first tried acupuncture in my teens and it made a tremendous (but temporary) difference.” -Lene Anderson, 58, from Toronto
Infrared Light Therapy
Infrared light therapy might sound a little sci-fi, but people with RA are finding real relief from this invisible light. Infrared treatments—which can be administered by rheumatologists or delivered with at home devices—work by penetrating deep into the body to promote circulation, which acts to reduce inflammation, stiffness, and pain. It also promotes cell regeneration, and one study even found a reduction in fatigue.
I tried it! “I use an infrared heating pad 20 minutes a day to soothe my muscles and joints, and to relax to sleep.” -Laura Jean, 40, from Nunavut, CA
Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts distilled into oil. They work topically (absorbing through your skin), aromatically (inhaling through the nose), or internally (through ingestion). Each essential oil has different properties and its intended purpose sheds light on which method of use is best. Dr. Baily recommends Black Spruce and Winter Green as a topical pain treatment for RA.
I tried it! “It is very effective on muscle, tendon, and joint pain. It is a great natural arthritis cream!” -Alexis Rochester, 33, of Fort Worth, TX, who makes a homemade essential oil salve with frankincense and myrrh.
Meditation will not heal your RA, but it can provide a framework for managing your stress and depressive symptoms. According to a University of Maryland study, people with RA who practice mindfulness daily for at least six months report significant improvements in their well-being. Meditation is deeply personal and there are many different techniques. Take the time to explore and try out different methods to find a practice that fits you. The easiest way to start is with a meditation app like Calm or Headspace.
I tried it! “It’s great for those who get flares that are triggered by stress. I feel like I am more patient with my children and myself which has made me a much happier person overall.” -Annie Rubin, 42, Minneapolis, MN
A University of Kentucky study found that CBD gel reduced joint pain and inflammation in rats with RA cells. But evidence of CBD causing RA relief in humans is still anecdotal. “CBD oils are more frequently used now but it’s important to note that they can cause medication interactions with two types of steroids—hydrocortisone and prednisolone—and the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) Celebrex,” warns Dr. LaMoreaux.
I tried it! “[Colorado Cures Hot Cream] CBD is the only topical rub I have used that immediately soothes the rheumatoid arthritis in my elbow. And it helps for many hours.” -Alexis Rochester, 33, Fort Worth, TX
- Massage RA Relief: Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. (2013). “Rheumatoid arthritis in upper limbs benefits from moderate pressure massage therapy.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23561068/
- Med-Free Pain Management: Chemistry Cachet. (2019). “Pain management techniques without medication.” chemistrycachet.com/pain-management-techniques-without-medication/
- Acupuncture for RA: Clinical Efficacy of Acupuncture on Rheumatoid Arthritis and Associated Mechanisms: A Systemic Review. (2018). “Clinical Efficacy of Acupuncture on Rheumatoid Arthritis and Associated Mechanisms: A Systemic Review.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5925010/
- Flotation and RA: Restricted Environmental Stimulation: Theoretical and Empirical Developments in Flotation REST. (1990). “Flotation for the Management of Rheumatoid Arthritis,” link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-1-4613-9701-4_14
- Cryotherapy and Electrostimulation in RA: ScienceDirect. (2018). “Effectiveness of combined use of cryotherapy and neuromuscular electrostimulation in Rheumatoid arthritis.” sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877065718303439
- Cryotherapy Efficacy Comparison: BioMed Research International. (2015). “Effects of Whole-Body Cryotherapy in Comparison with Other Physical Modalities Used with Kinesitherapy in Rheumatoid Arthritis.” hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2015/409174/
- Infrared for Inflammation: Chemistry Cachet. (2020). “How to use an infrared heat lamp for inflammatory pain.” chemistrycachet.com/infrared-heat-lamp-for-inflammatory-pain/
- Far Infrared Radiation: Photonics & Lasers in Medicine. (2012). “Far infrared radiation (FIR): Its biological effects and medical applications.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3699878/
- CBD for RA Relief: European Journal of Pain. (2016). “Transdermal cannabidiol reduces inflammation and pain-related behaviours in a rat model of arthritis.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4851925/
- CDC Mental Health With RA: CDC. (2018) “Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression Among Adults with Arthritis.” cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6739a2.htm?s_cid=mm6739a2_w#suggestedcitation
- Anti-Inflammatory Properties of Frankincense and Myrrh: Scientific Reports. (2015). “Frankincense and myrrh suppress inflammation via regulation of the metabolic profiling and the MAPK signaling pathway,” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4556964/
- Collagen and RA Pain: Arthritis Research & Therapy. (2009). “A multicenter, double-blind, randomized, controlled phase III clinical trial of chicken type II collagen in rheumatoid arthritis.” arthritis-research.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/ar287
- Mindfulness in RA: Arthritis Care & Research. (2007). “Effect of Mindfulness-Based stress reduction in rheumatoid arthritis pateints.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17907231/