Natural Treatments for RA Pain and Swelling
So, you woke up with a rheumatoid arthritis flare again. RA warriors know all too well that even with the most comprehensive treatment regimen, sometimes stiffness and joint pain are just a reality of life. Thankfully, there are several things you can do at home to minimize discomfort so you can get about your life without massive disruptions. Talk to your doctor before trying any natural treatment remedies on your own—but once you get the green light, feel free to experiment with these DIY options.
Consider How Well Your Treatment Is Working
If RA symptoms are making your life miserable even with consistent treatment, check in with your rheumatologist. “Though medications are effective in most people for reducing joint swelling and the associated symptoms like pain and stiffness, a subset of people with RA continue to experience symptoms even with aggressive therapy,” notes Sarah Patterson, M.D., integrative rheumatologist at the University of California San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. These patients may require trials of different medications to figure out what works best for them.
Ask Your Doc About Herbs & Supplements
If it’s just mild swelling and pain you’re experiencing, you can use herbs and supplements to further lower the inflammation in your body and minimize joint pain. The Arthritis Foundation recommends supplements as a complementary therapy for RA—fish oil and GLA (a fatty acid found mostly in vegetable oils) are two options many people have found helpful. You can also use spices like turmeric and ginger (which both have powerful anti-inflammatory properties) in your food or in herbal tea or take them in supplement form.
Embrace an Active Lifestyle
During a flare, you probably don’t feel like moving around much, but gentle stretches and aerobic exercises can help with blood flow. Plus, a healthy diet and workout routine can keep inflammation at bay. “Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the most important thing an individual can do in the setting of rheumatoid arthritis,” says Dana DiRenzo, M.D., instructor of clinical medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Arthritis Center in Baltimore. “This includes maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise, as well as lowering their levels of stress and getting enough sleep.”
Dr. Patterson encourages a diet rich in colorful vegetables, complex carbohydrates (whole grains), healthy fats (avocado, olive oil, walnuts, cold water fish), and mostly vegetarian protein (beans, legumes, nuts, unprocessed soy). “Try to minimize or avoid red meat, refined grains, processed foods, and added sugar,” she suggests. A 2019 research review in Frontiers in Nutrition noted that the high fiber content in plant-based foods helps encourage gut health in RA patients, which can help lower inflammation. Dr. DiRenzo suggests eating leafy greens and limiting alcohol and dark meat consumption.
Give Green Tea a Try
Green tea is another natural remedy that’s been shown to help with RA symptoms. A study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that RA patients who drank four to six cups of green tea per day for six months, combined with regular exercise, showed significant reduction in symptoms (green tea does have caffeine, though, so make sure you’re not overdoing it). A report in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences also cited the potential of green tea to treat RA, due to a bioactive molecule called epigallocatechin-3-gallate that targets inflammatory pathways in the body.
It’s all about a gut feeling—literally. Probiotics are bacteria known for their positive effects on the gut microbiome, the bacteria that lives in your digestive tract. Several small studies have shown that taking probiotic supplements such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium can lower the same inflammatory markers involved in an RA flare. This highlights the potential of probiotics as a useful alternative therapy—and provides plenty of incentive to incorporate fermented foods (like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha) into your diet. Look for supplements with a USP-verified label.
Think About Mindfulness Practice
Both Dr. Patterson and Dr. DiRenzo recommend stress-reduction techniques like yoga and meditation to keep your flares at bay. “For patients who find that stress is a trigger for worse symptoms or more flares, I recommend that they consider integrating a mind-body medicine practice such as meditation, yoga, guided imagery, or Tai Chi,” Dr. Patterson suggests. For a longer-term investment in your mental health, especially if your anxiety is particularly troublesome, consider seeking out a specialist in cognitive-behavioral therapy to equip you with better coping techniques.
Schedule a Massage
Massages can be done at home—on yourself or in tandem with a family member—or at the hands of a licensed professional. A study in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that moderate-pressure massages once per week can help reduce pain, improve grip strength, and extend range of motion in people with RA. Massages help promote blood flow to the corresponding limbs and muscles, and they also help reduce anxiety. PSA: You don’t need another excuse to book that massage you’ve been wanting for months now.
Look Into Acupuncture
Some people with RA swear by acupuncture to help relax their body and relieve symptoms of pain and stiffness. The science behind this is less certain, but one research review in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that this therapy (alone or in conjunction with other treatment approaches) can sometimes be beneficial for patients with RA. It has potential, according to some reports, to lower inflammation and improve the body’s immune response—though the authors noted that much more research is still needed. Either way, acupuncture could be worth trying if you’re curious.
Create an Arsenal of Essential Oils
Certain natural oils like eucalyptus oil, frankincense, and lavender oil have been shown in small studies to have a positive effect on reducing arthritis pain, alone or in conjunction with massage therapy. Before diving into the world of essential oils, be sure to check with a professional to make sure the oil you’re using is safe and won’t interfere with any medication. Just a drop or two goes a long way, and you’ll want to dilute them with a carrier oil before applying on your skin.
Try Topical CBD
Cannabis shows research-backed promise for helping with RA pain relief. But depending on your state of residence, it may not be legal to purchase anything with THC (the psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant). For a totally legal option that won’t get you high, look for topical CBD products to apply to your swollen joints. The research is still slim, but one review in Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management found that CBD products can help reduce RA inflammation and pain. Just do your research before you buy and discussing with your physician first to ensure there won't be any drug interactions with CBD use since most cannabis products are unregulated in the United States.
Supplements: Arthritis Foundation. (n.d.) “9 Supplements for Arthritis.” arthritis.org/health-wellness/treatment/complementary-therapies/supplements-and-vitamins/9-supplements-for-arthritis
Green Tea & Exercise: Journal of Physical Therapy Science. (2016.) “Green tea and exercise interventions as nondrug remedies in geriatric patients with rheumatoid arthritis.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5088134/
Herbs & Spices: International Journal of Molecular Sciences. (2018.) “Natural Products for the Treatment of Autoimmune Arthritis: Their Mechanisms of Action, Targeted Delivery, and Interplay with the Host Microbiome.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6164747/
Probiotics: Arthritis Foundation. (n.d.) “Probiotics and Arthritis.” arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/nutrition/healthy-eating/probiotics-and-arthritis
Plant-Based Diet: Frontiers in Nutrition. (2019.) “Nutrition Interventions in Rheumatoid Arthritis: The Potential Use of Plant-Based Diets. A Review.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6746966/
Massage Therapy: Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. (2013.) “Rheumatoid arthritis in upper limbs benefits from moderate pressure massage therapy.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23561068/
Acupuncture: Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2018.) “Clinical Efficacy of Acupuncture on Rheumatoid Arthritis and Associated Mechanisms: A Systemic Review.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5925010/
Eucalyptus Oil: Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2013.) “Effect of Eucalyptus Oil Inhalation on Pain and Inflammatory Responses after Total Knee Replacement: A Randomized Clinical Trial.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3703330/
Frankincense: Phytotherapy Research. (2010.) “Boswellia frereana (frankincense) suppresses cytokine-induced matrix metalloproteinase expression and production of pro-inflammatory molecules in articular cartilage.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19943332/
Lavender Aromatherapy Massage: Pain Management Nursing. (2016.) “The Effects of Aromatherapy Massage and Reflexology on Pain and Fatigue in Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27091583/
Cannabis & RA: Nature Reviews Rheumatology. (2018.) “Cannabinoids for the treatment of rheumatic diseases — where do we stand?” nature.com/articles/s41584-018-0025-5
CBD & RA Pain Research: Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management. (2008.) “Cannabinoids in the management of difficult to treat pain.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2503660/
CBD & Arthritis: Arthritis Foundation. (n.d.) “CBD For Arthritis Pain: What You Should Know.” arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/managing-pain/pain-relief-solutions/cbd-for-arthritis-pain