There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but there are treatments. Experts advise people to consult with a rheumatologist on the best medication options for their symptoms.
That’s good advice. But even if you rely on pharmaceutical drugs, there are a variety of natural, holistic, and complementary ways to treat your RA. I’m very aware of these holistic methods because I use many of them myself.
Top 10 alternative remedies
Here are my personal top 10 favorite natural ways to combat RA symptoms and live a healthful lifestyle of wellness, even while I cope with RA.
1. Essential oils
Essential oils and aromatherapy have been used since ancient times — ever hear of frankincense and myrrh? They’re often used to sooth the symptoms of conditions such as RA.
I find lavender works well for relaxation. Peppermint and eucalyptus help me with pain relief. I’ve tried garlic oil because it’s thought to have antibiotic properties and ginger oil because it’s thought to reduce inflammation. There’s another great essential oil-based product that I rely on called Deep Blue Rub, a topical pain relief salve.
Always be mindful of how you use essential oils. Pay attention to any instructions or warnings on the product’s package, and consult an expert or the manufacturer when in doubt. Some oils shouldn’t be used topically or ingested. Many essential oils are designed for use in a diffuser for aromatherapy.
Typically, I use oils topically and aromatically for my own needs. Topically, they often help with pain. Aromatically, they help relax me and improve my mood.
Floatation therapy, also known as sensory deprivation therapy, is a new trend in natural health treatments. During a floating session, you float atop warm, high-density saltwater, in a pitch-black, darkened, and soundproof “pod.” The idea is that it relaxes the mind and body, releases muscle tension, and takes pressure off of the joints.
I can only say good things about it. My husband — who is a personal trainer and American Ninja Warrior competitor! — just went last week and is also a fan. Many people on my online community have also commented on the benefits of floating. It’s wonderful, but proceed with caution if you’re a little claustrophobic, like I am. It takes some getting used to — but I get bad muscle spasms, so I’m all for anything that will relieve some tension!
Cryotherapy and ice baths might sound uncomfortable, but they may be good for people with musculoskeletal chronic pain and inflammatory conditions, such as RA. In fact, cryotherapy was with RA patients in mind!
During a cryotherapy session, you step into a cryosauna tank that’s filled with liquid nitrogen. Your body is exposed to temperatures of below –200ºF (–128ºC). (Yes, you read that correctly!) You’re mostly nude, save for undergarments, socks, mitts, and gloves. This is done ideally for a duration of two to three minutes, or for however long you can tolerate it. I lasted for under two minutes the first time and closer to three minutes the second time.
The idea behind cryotherapy is to put your body into “repair” mode as part of your natural flight-or-fight process. You’ve probably heard you should ice a swollen joint or put ice on an injury. This applies that same anti-inflammatory cooling concept, but to your whole body. The lack of any moisture, dampness, humidity, or wind makes the cold temperature more tolerable.
To me, cryotherapy was far more pleasant than an ice bath would be — and I liked it better than our cold Pittsburgh winters! I don’t know how much it worked, but I definitely left feeling refreshed and invigorated, like I could conquer the world!
4. Herbal tea
Herbal tea can have many soothing benefits. Many people who live with RA choose teas such as green tea, ginger tea, turmeric tea, and blueberry tea. Some companies even make “arthritis-friendly” or “joint comfort” herbal teas.
I drink multiple cups of tea per day, including chamomile or Sleepytime tea at night to help me relax before bed. I can’t go without my tea!
An ancient remedy that has stood the test of time is acupuncture. It’s a part of traditional Chinese medicine but has made its way into Western medicine as well.
During an acupuncture session, an acupuncturist uses very thin needles on certain points of the body. Usually, the needles aren’t inserted very deeply. Each needle coordinates with a body part, body system, or organ. The needles are thought to balance out or interrupt the flow of good and bad energy in the body, also known as the body’s chi or qi.
Acupuncture is somewhat related to the practice of acupressure. (They’re cousins, of sorts.) While modern-day science hasn’t confirmed that acupuncture works as a treatment for RA, some doctors recommend it. It isn’t clear why, but some people with RA report feeling better after acupuncture or acupressure treatments.
I absolutely love it and recommend it — so long as you go to a certified practitioner. It isn’t scary and it isn’t painful. For me, I visualize it releasing toxins and allowing “good vibes” to soak into my body! I definitely feel like it helps with pain, stress, and overall health.
The notion of chiropractic for RA is a tricky one — and it isn’t for everyone. Some rheumatologists and people with RA will advise against seeing a chiropractor. Others are fine with it. I like it in moderation, but some people don’t. It’s up to the individual and their doctor to decide if it’s a good option.
Most chiropractors advise against having chiropractic treatments during an RA flare, especially on the neck. I do engage in treatments, but not on my neck because I had neck surgery in 2011. However, I find that mild chiropractic work in moderation and for maintenance purposes can be a great source of pain relief for me.
I can usually tell when my body is in need of a chiropractic tune-up. If you decide to try this option, just make sure to speak with your doctor first. If your doctor approves, make sure to do your homework and find a reputable chiropractor.
7. Physical therapy (PT)
For me, physical therapy (PT) is a godsend. In the past, exercise was off-limits for folks dealing with RA. But nowadays it’s wholly embraced by most doctors. I wish I had started physical therapy back in middle school when I was first diagnosed!
Like many people living with RA, I find that I feel better with moderate activity. A mild exercise regimen, along with PT as needed, helps keep my joints mobile and my muscles strong and nimble.
PT is also important after some types of surgeries. I had my knee replaced in September 2017, and I still look forward to going to PT three times per week, for two hours or more per session. I do an hour of hydrotherapy in the pool — including a cool aqua treadmill! — and then about an hour on land. This includes weight-bearing and range-of-motion exercises.
I really enjoy it. PT has inspired me to want to keep moving!
I don’t know how I would manage without my monthly 90-minute deep tissue massage. Many people with RA find various types of massages helpful. But as with chiropractic work, massage should be done only as tolerated.
There are different types of massages ranging from hot stone massage to relaxing spa-like massages, trigger point massages, deep tissue massages, and more. You could get a massage done in a spa or salon setting, at a physical therapist’s office, or at a chiropractic clinic.
I personally have a monthly membership to a massage and wellness center and go to the same massage therapist each time. This routine is important for my self-care with RA.
9. Infrared heat therapy and LED light therapy
I use both infrared heat therapy and LED light therapy. Both options use different types of light and heat to reduce inflammation in the body. A good ol’ microwavable heating pad can do the trick too!
If you’re looking into infrared heat therapy, I personally use and recommend Thermotex products.
10. Biofeedback and meditation
Biofeedback and meditation go hand in hand. There are CDs, podcasts, and apps to help anyone learn how to meditate. Some even cater to those with chronic pain. Through biofeedback and pain management meditation, I’ve learned how to shift my focus away from pain.
It also helps me ease stress and anxiety. I’ve tried guided meditation via a CD that my neurologist recommended for pain management. I’ve also used a Muse biofeedback headband. Both are worth a try in my opinion.
It’s always a good idea to consult with a doctor or expert before trying natural approaches to managing your health. The different options that I’ve discussed can generally be used in conjunction with prescription medications — but it’s still a good idea to check.
I personally prefer a mix of traditional and natural approaches to my health. I believe that an integrative and translational, whole-body approach of mind, body, and spirit is best. I take meds when needed, but I try to use natural options whenever I can. A nutritious diet is also very important for a healthy lifestyle while living with RA.
It’s important to remember that every person who has RA is unique. What works for one person may not work for another. Sometimes we have to rely on trial and error, along with good medical advice, to see what works for us. Once we find what works, all of the time and effort spent on our journey to wellness should be worth it.
Ashley Boynes-Shuck is a published author, health coach, and patient advocate. Known online as Arthritis Ashley, she blogs at arthritisashley.com and abshuck.com, and writes for Dr.China.com. Ashley also works with the Autoimmune Registry and is a member of the Lions Club. She’s written three books: “Sick Idiot,” “Chronically Positive,” and “To Exist.” Ashley lives with RA, JIA, OA, celiac disease, and more. She resides in Pittsburgh with her Ninja Warrior husband and their five pets. Her hobbies include astronomy, birdwatching, traveling, decorating, and going to concerts.