Herbs, Acupuncture, Massage and Exercise

Many of you have been asking whether herbal remedies, acupuncture and exercise can relieve your arthritis. There are no definitive answers unfortunately, but here is the latest word from the medical community.

Herbal supplements: Multivitamins and calcium supplements are certainly important for good health, especially in RA patients who may be at risk for osteoporosis due to the medications they take. Data on herbal supplements is less definitive. Recent reviews of studies conducted in the United Kingdom and the United States testing the effectiveness of herbal supplements found that devil’s claw, glucosamine and chondroitin were effective in relieving pain of osteoarthritis; for RA, they pointed to the anti-inflammatory gamma-linolenic acid, and evening primrose oil as potentially effective in controlling some symptoms. Gamma-linolenic acid is an essential fatty acid found mainly in plant oils that cannot be produced by the body. While many hypothesize that glucosamine and chondroitin may be beneficial for RA patients, there is no conclusive evidence. Studies have shown that morning stiffness, pain and fatigue improved modestly in RA patients who took several grams a day of fish oil omega-3 fatty acid, which acts as an antiinflammatory and thus can reduce the need for NSAID medications like ibuprofen or naproxen; it seems that particular acids in fish oil—eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid—are responsible for the beneficial effects.

Acupuncture and Massage: A UK review found that acupuncture might have some promise in relieving back pain and certain osteoarthritis pain, especially of the knee. But there is no research pointing to specific benefits for RA patients. Similarly, massage may show some promise for relief of certain kinds of backaches and RA-related pain.

Exercise: Exercise therapy can be effective for a variety of chronic disorders, both as a psychological outlet and to control physical pain. A recent study of 25 patients followed for 15 weeks found that people who exercise more had less fatigue and greater hand grip. Weight-bearing exercise may slow the progression of osteoporosis. Recent studies, however, have also shown that high intensity, weight-bearing exercise in patients who have joint damage can accelerate damage progression. You should discuss your exercise program with your doctor and find the right combination of rest and exercise for you.
For more information :

  • Selected CAM therapies for arthritis- related pain. Clin J Pain. 2004;20(1):13-8.
  • Supplementation of fish oil and olive oil in patients with RA. Nutrition. 2005;21(2):131-6.
  • June 2, 2005 issue of Arthritis & Rheumatism.