Being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can be both a relief—finally, you’ve figured out what’s going on with your body—and a shock. There’s no cure for this autoimmune disease, which occurs which your body attacks its own joints, but with early treatment you can slow its progression.
When it comes to treating RA, following the right medication regimen is key for managing symptoms as well as slowing disease progression. Your doctor may recommend a combination of anti-inflammatories, steroids, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), and biologic agents to manage your RA during various stages.
In addition, there are some home remedies for RA you can try to make living with rheumatoid arthritis easier. Unfortunately, you may need a little trial and error to see what works for you. “There are really no home remedies that have been properly scientifically evaluated for management of rheumatoid arthritis,” says rheumatologist Stanley Cohen, MD, MACR, clinical professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical School. “Patients who are in pain will try many different things that are unproven due to the frustration over their disease.”
Although many home remedies can’t hurt, before starting any treatment, you should talk with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you. And always make sure you also keep up with your medications, as home remedies are meant as a supplement, not a replacement, for any medical treatment your doctor recommends.
Much attention has been focused around the possibility that fish oil, and the omega-3 fatty acids it contains, could be helpful for controlling the inflammation of RA. Some studies have found a link between higher intake of fish oil and lower RA disease activity, but these are still just associations, not necessarily cause and effect. Taking fish oil supplements may also increase bleeding risk, so be sure to talk to your doctor before taking it if you’re on blood thinners.
Herbs such as tumeric and ginger may also hold some promise in reducing RA symptoms. “Patients have tried various nutraceuticals such as turmeric or cucurmin [the chemical in tumeric], and there is some data to suggest that these might provide some reduction in inflammation,” says Dr. Cohen. (We love this turmeric smoothie recipe.)
Certain foods, diets, and ways of eating have been touted as reducing inflammation and therefore having potential to help the pain associated with RA. “The Mediterranean diet has foods that are inherently anti-inflammatory, like fatty fish, and avoids processed foods, so it is a healthy diet for those with autoimmune disease and arthritis,” says Susan M. Goodman, MD, a rheumatologist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “None of the diets have been shown to prevent joint damage, however.”
RA patient Dana Johnston believes that changes to her diet, including cutting back on red meat and drinking sour cherry juice, has helped her better manage her RA symptoms. Although the research on many of these so-called “anti-inflammatory” foods isn’t solid yet, a healthy diet full of vegetables, fruits, legumes and lean meats can help keep weight in check, which can lessen pressure on joints to relieve symptoms.
Researchers are just beginning to understand the role of the “good” bacteria that makes up our gut microbiome, which more and more research suggests plays a role in immune function. Probiotics, which are healthy bacteria found in yogurt, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods, or taken by supplement, may improve the microbiome—and, therefore, immune function. One small study found that RA patients given a probiotic supplement had reduced disease activity and inflammation.
Low-impact exercise like walking, swimming, or cycling is an important part of your RA treatment plan, and one that your doctors will certainly get behind. Physical activity improves your overall health, keeps weight down, and helps lower pressure on joints. Weight-bearing or resistance training are also important to help strengthen muscles. “The musculoskeletal unit is composed of muscle, bone, and joint, and these structures provide support such that a damaged joint can function better and hurt less when the supporting muscles are stronger,” Dr. Goodman says. “The mechanical function of the knee, for instance, functions optimally when the quadriceps, or thigh muscle, is strong.”
Although the pain and fatigue of RA can tempt you toward a more sedentary lifestyle, keeping your body active can help lessen your RA symptoms. You may want to also consult with a physical therapist who can give you exercises targeted to your particular case, and be sure to rest when your joints are inflamed to avoid injury.
In addition, consider exercises and stretches that use the small joints of the hands. Although repetitive motions can sometimes worsen pain, RA patient Barbara Klingert-Allen says one hobby in particular has helped her. “Knitting and crocheting helps mobility with fingers, and keeps up strength in hands as muscles tend to atrophy,” she says.
Chronic illness like RA takes it toll on your mind as well as your body, so home remedies that address both are useful. Certain exercises like yoga (we like this gentle yoga routine) or tai chi combine stretching and fluid movement with relaxation and mental techniques that may help relieve RA pain symptoms, although scientific evidence is still emerging. (One word of warning: Avoid any positions that are too strenuous, as some may need to be modified for people with RA).
In addition, meditation has been shown in some research to help coping with pain. Psychological support in general, through family and friends or a support group, is also important in maintaining a positive mood, good quality of life, and avoiding the depressive symptoms that often come with chronic illness like RA.
You may find that applying heat or cold, called thermotherapy, helps your RA symptoms. “Certainly the use of ice or heat can provide short-term relief, although in general we don't favor the use of heat for an inflamed joint,” Dr. Cohen says. In the case of acute inflammation, cold is preferred, as it restricts blood vessels. Heat, on the other hand, helps blood flow and can loosen joints and improve range of motion. Both Klingert-Allen and Johnston say warming their joints has benefits for them. “Hot wax baths helped with my hands,” Klingert-Allen says. (Think the paraffin wax like you might get during a manicure.) “Warm showers and warm swimming pools—89 degrees—help,” Johnston says, noting that she uses cold compresses as well. Although the scientific evidence isn’t strong, you can try thermotherapy to see if it’s beneficial (with your doctor’s OK).
Splints or braces, such wrist support, can provide support and take the pressure off your joints. “Splinting and braces help reduce inflammation when the joint is inflamed,” Dr. Cohen says. This can help stabilize the joint if it feels too loose and unsupported. Klingert-Allen swears by ring braces that lend support to her fingers (and are super stylish!). “I’ve worn them for 20 years and have had great success with those,” she says. “I just started wearing one on my right thumb to help stop ‘Z’-thumb.” (Z-thumb occurs in RA patients when the thumb joints hyperextend to form a Z-like shape.) She has also found relief using kinesiology tape, such as you might see athletes use, on her hands.
Modifying household items and clothing can reduce the strain on your joints. For example, Klingert-Allen suggests light switches that slide, electric can openers, and deadbolts that slide instead of turn. “Pull chains on lamps switches are easier,” she says. “Clothing with zippers rather than buttons is better, and slip-on shoes instead of laces.” Lever-style door openers (rather than knobs) are also helpful. In addition, find alternative ways of carrying objects. “I go through life thinking of how I wouldn’t have to use my hands,” Klingert-Allen says. “Like shoulder bags allow me to pick up my pocket book without using finger joints.” An occupational therapist can help you figure out how to use your hands less frequently.