One out of every five adults is believed to suffer from some form of arthritis. Though the term ‘arthritis’ is commonly used to denote a disorder of the joint that causes pain and stiffness in the joint, it is an umbrella term that includes more than 100 different types of diseases. Though the risk of arthritis increases with age, it can affect anyone regardless of age. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the most common forms of arthritis. Other common types of arthritis include gout, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and lupus. (1)
Osteoarthritis is one of the prominent causes of disability. According to the World Health Organization’s statistics, 18 percent women and 9.6 percent men above the age of 60 experience symptoms associated with osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis limits movement in 80 percent of the sufferers and a quarter of osteoarthritis patients are incapable of performing even the main activities of daily life. While osteoarthritis is common in the aging population, rheumatoid arthritis develops during the most productive years of life, between 20 and 40 years. Approximately, 0.3 to 1 percent of the global population is believed to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. (2)
The conventional treatment for arthritis focuses on alleviating the symptoms and enhancing mobility of the affected joints. Medications recommended for arthritis patients depend upon the type of arthritis. They include analgesics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), counterirritants, disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), corticosteroids and biologic response modifiers. When conservative therapies do not produce the desired result, surgery is usually recommended. (3) However, over-the-counter (OTC) as well as prescription medications for arthritis entail risk of side effects. They are known to produce mild to serious adverse reactions.
Moreover, the exact effect varies from person to person and various body parts can be affected by these medicines. (4) Dissatisfied with the outcome of conventional treatment and fear of side effects tempt a number of arthritis sufferers to seek alternative or complementary therapies. Natural therapies are believed to be safer and can help in management of chronic pain. (5)
All-Natural Remedies for Arthritis
Time honored natural therapies are often found to be effective in improving the function of the joints and attenuating the symptoms of arthritis. A number of these natural methods for managing arthritis pain have been proven by clinical studies. Self-help measures and natural remedies can be used in conjunction with medications. However, managing arthritis with natural methods alone helps in reducing the chemical load of the body, which is good for your overall health. The severity of your arthritis determines whether you can rely only on natural remedies. As natural remedies are not equally effective for everyone, it is important to find a remedy that is perfect for you. (6)
1. Dietary Modifications
Simple changes in the diet can help in improving the condition of your joints. Healthy eating helps in maintaining healthy body weight, fighting inflammation and strengthening the cartilage. Reducing the body weight helps in decreasing stress on the knee joints, the most common sites of arthritis. Removing the unwanted calories from your diet helps in weight loss. You can easily eliminate the extra calories by avoiding sugar rich foods and drinks, decreasing the portion sizes and consuming fruits and vegetables. (7)
Fruits and vegetables:
They are rich in antioxidants that help in diminishing cell damage. Some of these antioxidants such as the ones found in onion, apples and strawberries are known to alleviate pain and inflammation of the joints.
Vitamin C rich Foods:
Fruits and vegetables that are rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, strawberries, red peppers, cabbage, broccoli and kale are good for the joint tissues. Vitamin C is essential for building connective tissues and joints. Men need 90 mg of vitamin C and women need 75 mg of vitamin C per day.
The anti-inflammatory effect of the omega-3 fatty acids helps in reducing pain and stiffness of the joints. Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, sardines and mackerel are the best sources of these essential fats. Two servings of 3-ounce of fatty fish per week can meet your omega-3 fatty acid requirement.
Olive oil contains an anti-inflammatory compound called oleocanthal. The concentration of oleocanthal is higher in olive oils with strong flavor. It is believed to work like pain relief drugs. 3 ½ tablespoons of olive oil is known to be as effective as the pain relief drug ibuprofen. As incorporating this amount of olive oil will add 400 calories to your diet, to control your calorie intake, it is advisable to replace butter and other fats with olive oil.
2. Dietary And Botanical Supplements
A number of dietary and botanical supplements are found to be effective in reducing joint pain and stiffness and improving the mobility of joints.
Turmeric has been used since time immemorial as a remedy for arthritis pain and inflammation. According to studies, the main active constituent of turmeric, curcumin is capable of fighting osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Laboratory studies have shown that curcumin when combined with agents that are clinically used for ameliorating symptoms of arthritis caused significant reduction in inflammation. A clinical study has shown that regular intake of 1200 mg of curcumin for 2 weeks helped in reducing morning stiffness and joint swelling and improved walking time. (8)
Boswellia serrata or Indian frankincense contains potent anti-inflammatory compounds called boswellic acids. It helps in alleviating joint swelling and pain and is known to improve morning stiffness. Furthermore, it helps in improving blood flow to the inflamed joint. Boswellia is also believed to support rebuilding of cartilages and inhibits destruction of the different components of the cartilage. According to a clinical study, ingestion of 600 mg of boswellic acid caused significant reduction in joint pain after 4 weeks. (9)
Glucosamine And Chondroitin
Glucosamine and Chondroitin are natural substances present in the cartilage. They assist in the development and maintenance of the cartilage and are believed to help in repairing the joint tissues. Studies suggest that glucosamine supplementation helps in controlling joint pain and improving joint mobility and inhibits narrowing of the joint. Chondroitin was found to be as effective as glucosamine in reducing the symptoms of arthritis. However, it could not avert narrowing of the joint space. However, glucosamine and chondroitin are not found to be effective in all cases of arthritis. Nevertheless, some individuals with moderate to severe pain claim that glucosamine and chondroitin combination causes significant reduction in pain. Glucosamine and chondroitin are usually considered safe. But glucosamine may not be safe for diabetics and people allergic to shellfish, while chondroitin may increase risk of bleeding in people on anticoagulant drugs. (10)
Ginger is one of the best known botanicals for controlling arthritis symptoms. It is known to work as a COX-2 inhibitor. A clinical study has shown that regular intake of ginger extract helps in reducing pain while standing and walking in people with knee osteoarthritis. When taken for 6 weeks, it also helped in decreasing the dosage of the pain relief medications. (11) Research also suggests that a mixture of ginger and turmeric in equal proportions can help in ameliorating the joint inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis patients. (12)
Cat’s claw is a plant indigenous to the Amazon rainforest. In folk remedy, it is used as a remedy for inflammatory disorders. The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities of two species of cat’s claw, Uncaria tomentosa and Uncaria guianensis are supported by laboratory studies. Studies suggest that cat’s claw extract can help in improving the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. In a clinical study, rheumatoid arthritis patients who received cat’s claw extract for 24 weeks reported reduction in the number of painful joints. (13)
Pineapple and unripe papaya are sources of natural enzymes that help in breaking down proteins, thereby easing their digestion and absorption. These enzymes that aid protein digestion are known as proteolytic enzymes. They are available as supplements in the form of bromelain, papain, pepsin, pancreatin, rennin, trypsin and chymotrypsin. Apart from improving digestion, they are known for their anti-inflammatory effect. (14) Studies have shown that proteolytic enzyme supplement was as effective as the standard anti-inflammatory medications in improving the osteoarthritis symptoms of the knee, back and shoulder. It can help people suffering from degenerative arthritis. (15)
3. Massage Therapy
Arthritis patients can benefit from massage therapy. A number of clinical studies support the effectiveness of massage therapy in alleviating pain and improving joint mobility. A study reported in the Journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice has shown that people with rheumatoid arthritis in the upper limbs experienced improvement in grip strength and range of motion in the wrist, elbows and shoulders and reduction in pain following moderate pressure massage therapy. (16) In another study, researchers reported that moderate pressure massage therapy helps in reducing knee arthritis pain and increased the range of motion of the knee. (17) These studies suggest that moderate pressure massage therapy is more effective than light pressure massage for arthritis patients. 15 to 30 minutes of moderate pressure massage helps in improving joint mobility and reduces pain. Furthermore, it helps in reducing depression, anxiety and social anxiety. (18)
4. Essential Oils
A number of essential oils are known to reduce pain, swelling and discomfort of the joints and alleviates muscle soreness. Massaging the joints with essentials oils diluted in carrier oils helps in relieving the joint pain. Carrier oils that are best suited for arthritis and rheumatism include sesame oil, flaxseed oil, borage oil and hemp oil. Prepare arthritis massage blend by combining one ounce each of flaxseed oil and hemp oil and add 1 drop each of ginger oil, black pepper oil, 3 drops of coriander oil, 4 drops each of chamomile and helichrysum oil and 2 drops of benzoin resin. You can also prepare arthritis relief massage blend by blending 1 ounce each of sesame oil and flaxseed oil and adding 1 drop of valerian, 2 drops each of cedarwood and marjoram oil, 3 drops each of St. John’s wort and helichrysum oil and 4 drops of vetiver oil to the carrier oils. For relief from pain, add 1 drop of laurel oil, 2 drops of helichrysum oil and 3 drops of lemon oil to warm bathwater and soak for 20 to 30 minutes. (19)
5. Topical Applications
Preparations with natural ingredients can be used topically to ease the pain. Comfrey cream is known to provide fast relief from arthritis pain. In a study in Germany, people with painful knee arthritis reported significant improvement in pain after applying 2 grams of comfrey cream thrice a day for three weeks. (20) Capsaicin is a natural compound found in the membranes and seeds of the common pepper and other members of the nightshade family. When applied to the painful area it inhibits buildup of the substance P that triggers arthritis pain, thereby reducing the sensation of pain. Capsaicin preparations are known to work when used consistently for about a week. (21)
Despite the joint pain, regular exercise is essential for combating arthritis. It helps in reducing joint pain and improves mobility of the joint by strengthening the surrounding muscles and maintaining bone strength. Regular exercises are needed for maintaining the healthy body weight. It addition, exercise helps in increasing the energy level, improves balance and boosts the quality of life. Lack of exercise weakens the muscles, thereby increasing stress on the bones and worsening pain. Exercises that are ideal for people with arthritis include range-of-motion exercises, aerobic exercises and strength training. Range-of-motion exercises such as raising the arms upwards and shoulder roll exercises help in reducing stiffness of the joints. Aerobic exercises help in controlling weight and are good for the overall health including the cardiovascular health. Low-impact aerobic exercises such as swimming, bicycling and walking are safe for the joints. Moderate intensity aerobic exercise is usually considered safe and effective. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic workout per week. To reduce stress on the joints, take a break after working out for 10 minutes. Strength-training exercise helps in building strong muscles. Strength training thrice a week is usually considered sufficient at the initial stage of the workout regimen. (22)
Hydrotherapy involves the use of water for improving health. It is considered an effective method for relieving localized inflammation and pain and increasing circulation. The simple hydrotherapy procedure for arthritis involves applying cold or hot compresses. Cold compress helps in calming the hot and swollen joint. In a bowl, mix ice and cold water. The water should not be too cold. Ideally the temperature should be between 13 and 18 degree Celsius. Dip a towel in the cold water. Wring it out and place it on the painful area. Leave it for 2 to 3 minutes and then reapply another cold compress. Continue applying the compress for 10 minutes. For better result, a cold compress is usually preceded by hot compress. The heat stimulates circulation and increases flexibility. Dip a towel in hot water. The temperature of the water should be between 37 and 40 degree Celsius. Wring out the towel and leave it on the painful area for about 3 minutes. Follow this by a cold compress for 30 to 60 seconds. Another form of hydrotherapy is taking a hot bath or shower followed by a cold shower. (23)
The World Health Organization has recognized acupuncture as an effective therapy for ameliorating knee and shoulder pain. However, the effectiveness of the therapy depends upon the skills of the acupuncturist. (24) Acupuncture involves inserting needles at specific points. It is believed to work by relaxing the muscles that assist in joint movement. It is also believed to stimulate blood circulation and helps in reducing inflammation and is known to desensitize the irritated nerves, thereby reducing pain. (25)
9. Tai Chi
Tai chi is a traditional Chinese therapy involving a series of slow gentle movements combined with deep breathing. It is a form of meditative martial art, believed to be good for the joints. The low-impact movements do not stress the knees and ankles, and positive benefits are usually reported by practicing tai chi for a month or two. The movements compress the joints, thereby stimulating flow of the synovial fluid in the cartilage, which nourishes and lubricates the joints. (26) A study reported in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity found tai chi to be moderately effective for people with arthritis. It helped in improving pain, stiffness and fatigue. (27)
Yoga is a form of psycho-physical exercise. The slow movements help in improving the physical as well as the mental conditions. Modern studies suggest that yoga affects the musculoskeletal, nervous and immune systems. It increases muscle strength and flexibility, improves fitness and physical balances and alleviates pain. Yoga is known to relieve knee arthritis pain and helps in restoring the joint function. (28)