Complementary therapies are no longer offbeat oddities—even for people with arthritis who also rely on conventional medical care. According to a 2012 study in The Journal of Clinical Nursing, of 250 patients with either osteoarthritis (OA) or rheumatoid arthritis (RA), more than two thirds had tried complementary therapies that lessened pain, improved sleep, and allowed them to increase their activity.
As long as your doctor approves, such improvements may be reason enough to give one or more such therapies a try. Below are descriptions of some of the most commonly used, and their benefits and drawbacks.
Massage has been relieving pain and stress since ancient times. In fact, the Greek physician Hippocrates called medicine “the art of rubbing.” According to an American Massage Therapy Association survey, about 48 million U.S. adults received massage therapy between July 2009 and July 2010.
Benefits: “Most of all, people with arthritis will notice greater joint mobility, range-of-motion, and less pain and inflammation,” says Kim Turk, director of massage services at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C. “Arthritic joints are often inflamed and filled with fluids. Massage pushes those fluids into the lymphatic system, which then flushes them into the body. So, there is often a visible reduction of fluid on the joint, especially in the knee.” Turk is involved in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that compared people with OA who had massages once or twice a week for either 30 or 60 minutes. “The study found that one hour once a week was optimum in relieving pain and improving function,” she says.
Drawbacks: “When people with RA or OA have a flare, it’s important that a massage therapist not work too aggressively,” says Turk.
How to find a practitioner: “Find one who is part of a large organization,” says Turk–for instance, one who has been certified by the National Certification Board for massage and body work; or who belongs to the American Massage Therapy Association or the Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All three provide information about finding a practitioner. “Interview the therapist by phone or in person,” suggests Turk. “Ask how he typically treats issues like yours, and what he suggests for someone with arthritis.”
The practice of yoga, involving exercise, breathing and meditation, dates back about 5,000 years, originating in India.
Benefits: “Yoga postures can strengthen muscles around the joints, “ says yoga therapist Carol Krucoff of Duke Integrative Medicine, author of the upcoming book Yoga Sparks: 108 Easy Practices for Stress Relief in a Minute or Less. “And yoga breathing—deep abdominal breathing—can create a relaxation response that lowers heart rate and releases muscle tension.” Yoga also teaches acceptance, says Krucoff, important when dealing with pain. “The natural response is to fight pain, which amplifies suffering,” she says. “Yoga teaches you to say, ‘I know pain comes and goes, and that it will ease.’”
Drawbacks: “If your joints are red, hot or swollen, you may need to back off exercise,” says Krucoff. Also what movements you do may depend on where you have pain. For instance, if you have hand arthritis, certain movement like a pincer grip, or holding your thumb and forefinger together, may not be a good idea,” she says. Ask your physical therapist and rheumatologist which movements to avoid.
How to find a practitioner: The Yoga Alliance Organization has a registry of teachers with a minimum 200 hours of training. The International Association of Yoga Therapists offers instructors who specialize in working with people with health challenges. “Ask the teacher if she has experience with people with OA and RA, and specialized training,” says Krucoff. Duke Integrative Medicine, for instance, offers Therapeutic Yoga for Seniors Teacher Training, which teaches instructors how to work with people with arthritis. “Also, classes taught at hospital-based Wellness Centers often have well-trained instructors familiar with health challenges.”
Acupuncture evolved from ancient Chinese medicine, and involves the placement of tiny needles in various parts of the body in order to release blocked energy, or chi (pronounced chee). True Chinese acupuncture is paired with the use of medicinal herbs, says acupuncturist Kyo Mitchell, associate professor of Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington.
Benefits: “A mixture of herbs and acupuncture can decrease inflammation, help remove waste products, help provide nutrients to the tissues, decrease pain, and increase mobility.”
Drawbacks: Although acupuncture can help slow disease progression, it can’t reverse tissue damage, says Mitchell: “And it’s not fast-acting like anti-inflammatories. Usually, you see results within a half dozen treatments.” If someone’s blood pressure is high, Mitchell doesn’t recommend acupuncture or herbs.
How to find a practitioner: The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture lists certified practitioners by location. “Look for a licensed practitioner who uses herbs along with acupuncture,” says Mitchell. “The combined treatment is more effective.” Mitchell also recommends getting referrals from friends who have had successful treatments. “Talk to the practitioner about what he can or can’t do. And look for a practitioner experienced with arthritis.”
Meditation is an ancient practice of concentrated focus that involves deep breathing and mantras, or repeated words or phrases that can relieve stress, and increase relaxation and awareness.
Benefits: “Meditation can help stop the chronic pain cycle by intervening in the mental and emotional aspects of pain,” says Dr. David Dillard-Wright, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, and author of Meditation for Multi-Taskers. “The Sanskrit word mantra means taking away the mind. And unlike medications, meditation has no side effects or risk of dependency.”
Drawbacks: Meditation doesn’t provide quick results,” says Dillard-Wright: “It takes a little bit of time and practice.” Dillard-Wright recommends starting with twenty minutes of practice twice a day: “Begin with deep breathing , allowing thoughts to fall away. If you have trouble concentrating, repeat a word like peace or joy.”
How to find a practitioner: Dillard-Wright recommends working with someone from a reputable organization, checking community bulletin boards, or the Web. Many yoga studios have classes as well.