Many people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are curious about natural ways to address their symptoms. Standard treatments for RA include biologics and disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (or DMARDs), like methotrexate. These target specific parts of the immune system and prevent inflammation. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may also be used to control inflammation and reduce pain.
Recently, however, research has revealed that there are natural remedies that have shown promise for helping to manage RA.
Natural remedies often fall under the category of complementary and alternative medicine, meaning they are used in addition to or instead of standard Western medicines. These remedies include traditional Chinese medicine (e.g., Chinese herbs, acupuncture, tai chi), along with other supplements.
Interest in natural remedies is driven by the fact that herbs and supplements are more easily available, more affordable, and may have fewer side effects than many medications. Though natural herbs and techniques have existed for centuries, we are still learning how they work and if they can be helpful for certain diseases. Interestingly, a systematic review and meta-analysis of 16 studies found evidence that Chinese medicines appeared to protect bone density in people with RA.
There are many herbs, supplements, and techniques considered complementary medicine, and some of the more popular ones are discussed below. While there is promising research on some of these treatments, more study is needed to fully understand how well they work.
Natural remedies are not a cure for RA and should not replace the medications prescribed to you by a rheumatologist. Depending on your circumstances, they may be used along with medications to reduce arthritis symptoms like joint pain and inflammation. Always follow the medical advice of your doctor, and remember that just because something is “natural” does not necessarily mean that it is safe.
There are several herbs and supplements that have been studied as possible therapies to help manage the symptoms of RA. Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any new herbs or supplements to avoid any negative interactions with your current medication.
Boswellia serrata is a tree that grows in regions of India, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. The gum resin retrieved from the tree is called Indian frankincense. Frankincense has been used in traditional medicine to treat inflammatory diseases. A review of studies shows that B. serrata may reduce inflammation and protect joints by limiting the inflammatory signals of cells. B. serrata has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects in mice. A systematic review showed trends of benefit for B. serrata use in people with osteoarthritis. More studies need to be done to confirm these results, but B. serrata and frankincense show promising pain-relief and anti-inflammatory properties.
Many myRAteam members also use this supplement to help with their RA pain. One member wrote, “I also take frankincense oil and as crazy as it sounds, it does help with the inflammation and pain.”
Another member shared, “I take Boswellia and turmeric/ginger — it does wonders.”
Fish oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which may have some anti-inflammatory effects and can be helpful in reducing pain as a safe alternative to NSAIDs. The studies on fish oil and omega-3 supplementation for RA are widely varied. But there is some evidence that fish oil can relieve RA symptoms. A 2017 study found that people with RA who took 1 gram of concentrated fish oil for 12 weeks reported fewer tender joints and less pain compared to people with RA who did not take supplements.
One myRAteam member said, “I find that the fish oil (omega-3s) really help with managing my flare-ups — of course, in conjunction with my Celebrex.”
Turmeric, also called Curcuma longa, is a type of plant in the ginger family. It mainly grows in India and is a popular supplement. A major part of turmeric is called curcumin, which may help relieve symptoms of RA. Curcumin has shown anti-inflammatory properties in several studies in mice. Also, a meta-analysis of several studies suggests that people with RA using curcumin experienced less pain. In these studies, taking up to 1,200 milligrams per day of curcumin was found to be safe for up to four months. One myRAteam member noted, “I take turmeric tablets and it has helped me. It numbs the pain and makes life a bit more bearable.”
Capsaicin is a component of chili peppers that blocks pain transmission in nerves. It is prescribed to relieve neuralgia and minor pain in RA and muscle pain. One review of studies found that topical application of capsaicin seemed to help relieve pain in people with postherpetic neuralgia.
Some myRAteam members have also used capsaicin for RA pain relief. “I kind of like capsaicin — the little bit of ‘heat’ I feel from applying it feels good!” wrote one member, while another shared that using a cannabidiol (or CBD) stick with capsaicin “helps some.”
Capsaicin may cause minor itching or rash, and it should be kept away from the eyes and mouth.
Green tea is made from a plant called Camellia sinensis and has been used in China and Japan as medicine for thousands of years. A 2016 study questioned if green tea or exercise could help manage RA. Participants with RA drank 4 to 6 cups of green tea per day for six months. Researchers found that these people had reduced markers of inflammation and disease scores. These benefits were even better when green tea was coupled with physical exercise. Though there are not enough studies to know for sure if green tea can help with RA symptoms, it can be an enjoyable antioxidant beverage to stay hydrated.
The microbiome is the community of bacteria that live in your body. Recent research shows that changes in this bacterial community can affect your health. Some changes in the microbiome may have negative health effects that could impact autoimmune diseases like RA. The changes in the microbiome of people with RA are not yet well understood. However, one study in rats with RA-like symptoms found that adding a single bacterium into the microbiome decreased disease activity.
Supplements and certain foods — such as yogurt or sauerkraut — contain probiotics, which are microorganisms like yeast and bacteria. Taking probiotics might change your microbiome and improve your health, but more research is needed to fully understand the impact of probiotics on RA.
Thunder god vine is a plant that commonly grows in Southeast China and has been shown to relieve RA pain in a couple of study reviews. Unfortunately, thunder god vine can have several negative side effects, like:
If thunder god vine is not prepared properly, it can also be extremely poisonous. Due to these dangerous possibilities, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health advises “the risks of using thunder god vine may be greater than its benefits.”
Several natural, body-focused techniques have also shown promise for helping manage RA symptoms.
Acupuncture is a technique where very thin needles are inserted into the skin at certain points. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed to balance the chi (pronounced “chee”) or life force in the body. In Western medicine, acupuncturists think that acupuncture can stimulate nerves and muscles, increasing the body’s natural pain killers. Acupuncture is commonly used for pain treatment and stress management.
Although strong clinical studies on acupuncture use for RA are lacking, one systematic review of studies found it generally seemed helpful and improved quality of life for people with the condition. The authors noted that acupuncture alone or with other treatments was beneficial to the symptoms of RA without adverse effects. This may be due to anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects, or changes in the immune system.
A similar but distinct technique practiced by modern Western physical therapists is called “dry needling.” This technique can be included with a physical therapy treatment plan. Physical therapy may also help people manage their RA pain. A randomized controlled trial of 127 people with RA found that six weeks of physical therapy improved morning stiffness and self-efficacy (a person’s belief in their abilities).
Some myRAteam members have also tried acupuncture. One said, “I have tried acupuncture and I love it, but the relief for my RA is only temporary. It wears off by the next day!”
Another member got more relief from acupuncture: “I use acupuncture when I have back or hip pain. That along with the massage and medicated patches they put on afterwards always help with the strain and pain.”
Read more about acupuncture for RA here.
Tai chi (pronounced “tie-chee”) is an ancient Chinese tradition used as a form of exercise. It involves slow, deliberate movement, and some types also focus on self-defense. Tai chi is a low-impact exercise that may benefit people with RA. Although tai chi does not seem to affect the disease activity of RA, a systematic review suggested that tai chi could help people with RA improve their mood, depression, and overall quality of life.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health describes yoga as an ancient, complex, spiritual practice rooted in Indian philosophy. In the United States, yoga practice typically focuses on certain physical moves, breathing techniques, and mediation. Along with tai chi, yoga is sometimes called “meditative movement.” Yoga is typically used to improve wellness by helping people relieve stress, improve mental health, relieve neck and back pain, lose weight, and manage symptoms of chronic diseases.
A meta-analysis of people with RA who practiced yoga noted that better studies are needed. But overall, it seemed like yoga could help people with RA improve physical function and grip strength. One myRAteam member tried yoga and said, “I had a sore back but did a little yoga, and it really helped.”
Read more about yoga for RA here.
If you or a loved one have rheumatoid arthritis, you can find support through myRAteam, the social network for people affected by the condition. On myRAteam, more than 148,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with RA.
Are you using natural remedies to manage RA? Share your experience in the comments below, or share your story on your myRAteam.