Alternative Ways to Easing Arthritis Pain
Experts look at the pros and cons of alternative arthritis therapies.
By Carol Sorgen
Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD
Alternative therapies for arthritis range from A (acupuncture) to Z (zinc sulfate), with much in between -- from copper bracelets to magnets to glucosamine to yoga, to name just a few. But do alternative therapies for arthritis really work?
Many arthritis sufferers are looking into alternative therapies in an effort to find relief from the pain, stiffness, stress, anxiety, and depression that accompany the disease. Indeed, the Arthritis Foundation reports that two-thirds of those suffering from the disease have tried alternative therapies.
Some Work, Many Don't
A survey conducted for Arthritis Today by Leigh Callahan, PhD, reported that the favorite alternative therapies of the 790 arthritis sufferers who responded to the survey included everything from prayer and meditation to glucosamine and magnets. Callahn is associate director of the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Of the 2,146 physicians who responded to the survey, the alternative therapies most recommended were capsaicin, relaxation, biofeedback, meditation, journal writing, yoga, spirituality, tai chi, acupuncture, and glucosamine.
And some of these alternative treatments really work, say leading arthritis specialists, and even have scientific evidence behind them (although most doctors admit that more research is needed). On the other hand, many more of the alternative treatments don't work or need more studies to support anecdotal claims.
Battling Arthritis With Movement
Deborah Litman, MD, a clinical assistant professor in the division of rheumatology at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, is a strong proponent of exercise (though it's not listed as an alternative treatment per se) in the treatment of arthritis.
"Impact-loading" activity, on the other hand, such as jogging or high-impact aerobics, is not recommended, but more gentle exercise, such as swimming or water aerobics, is.
The mind-body practice of yoga may also help arthritis sufferers.
Though there are few studies that look at the effects of yoga on arthritis per se, a 1994 study published in the British Journal of Rheumatology did find that people with rheumatoid arthritis who participated in a yoga program over a three-month period had greater handgrip strength compared with those who did not practice yoga.
The same year, another study published in the Journal of Rheumatology reported that arthritis sufferers who practiced yoga showed a significant improvement in pain, tenderness, and finger range of motion for osteoarthritis of the hands.
Sticking It to Arthritis Pain
Acupuncture is another possibility; it is a therapy that has been studied extensively. As far as we know, says Litman, it doesn't change the course of the illness. But it can be helpful in managing pain and reducing stress associated with living with the chronic condition.
In 1980, the World Health Organization endorsed acupuncture for the treatment of some 40 ailments, including both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
In 1997, an NIH panel also concluded that acupuncture was not only helpful for postoperative pain and nausea, but also could help in the treatment of fibromyalgia and other musculoskeletal conditions, and without the side effects of anti-inflammatory drugs.
The University of Maryland School of Medicine recently completed a four-year NIH-funded study, the largest ever undertaken, to determine how well acupuncture works. The results, published in December 2004 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that traditional Chinese acupuncture significantly reduces pain and improves function for patients with knee osteoarthritis who have moderate or more severe pain despite taking pain medication.
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