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Rheumatoid Arthritis

Complementary and alternative approaches for rheumatoid arthritis

Complementary and alternative therapies have not been tested using conventional scientific methods, so their effects have mostly not been measured or proven. As the name 'complementary' suggests, these approaches are usually considered an addition to and not a substitute for conventional medical treatment.

Many of the people we interviewed had tried various complementary treatments, including special diets and herbal medicines (see also 'Diet and food supplements'.) Most of them said that complementary treatments had not helped. Some had tried various creams or copper or magnetic bracelets, but without obvious improvement.

One woman said that when she first got arthritis she got quite annoyed because others kept telling her to try their 'patent remedy', including comfrey tea, olives and gin. Other people blamed her for her illness not improving if she hadn't tried their remedies.

 

Annoyingly others told her to try their 'patent remedies' and then blamed her for her illness if...

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Annoyingly others told her to try their 'patent remedies' and then blamed her for her illness if...

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 36
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When I first, what annoyed me when I first got the arthritis, was, people were saying, 'Oh you should try comfrey tea. You should try olives and gin' or whatever the latest thing was. And then they'd see me a few weeks later and if I hadn't tried it they would say, 'Oh well,' you know, 'no wonder you're still bad.' You know. That used to be [laughs] good heavens, you know. It used to really annoy me. My fault 'cos I hadn't done their patent remedy for it, you know. And everybody was, every, everything from psychotherapy to whatever, you know, I should be doing, everybody told me, you know. 

A few people had visited an osteopath or chiropractor, but because of existing damage to joints didn't recommend it for arthritis. One woman was having hydrotherapy at the same time and her physiotherapist told her that she would not treat her if she continued with the chiropractor because she didn't want to be responsible for anything that might go wrong.

Some people were very sceptical, and said that treatments such as massage had made them feel worse. They were concerned about 'quackery', whether practitioners were properly trained and thought that complementary treatments were a waste of money. One woman felt that more research into complementary therapies would be valuable so a more holistic approach to treatment could be used.

 

He tried 'everything that the homeopathic, herbalist, and internet has got to offer', but decided...

He tried 'everything that the homeopathic, herbalist, and internet has got to offer', but decided...

Age at interview: 55
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 47
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In terms of what else has happened along the way, like many other rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, I've tried probably everything that the homeopathic, herbalist, internet has got to offer in terms of cures or so-called cures for, for the illness and I haven't found the Holy Grail yet so I would, if anything I would tell new people coming in with rheumatoid arthritis, just don't bother, don't waste your money, you won't find it. There are certain things that can, rheumatoid arthritis has other effects on, you can get nodules in your lungs and it can affect your stomach, as well and some of those herbal remedies did actually calm my stomach down and things like that, but there was no way anywhere I could have stopped taking medicinal painkillers or, or things like methotrexate, which I'm on now.

A minority thought, however, that complementary treatments or special diets had helped them, at least for a while. Some, for example, spoke very highly of spiritual and Reiki healing. Others enjoyed massage, aromatherapy and reflexology. Two women recommended adding lavender oil (relaxing) or boiled ginger (anti-inflammatory) to hot baths to help symptoms.

 

She thinks spiritual and Reiki healing are helpful even if the benefit is only psychological.

She thinks spiritual and Reiki healing are helpful even if the benefit is only psychological.

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 2
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And he did all this hoodaloodaloo and do you know what, I'm not being funny but I did feel better for days after that. And I know it's only, I mean and as a child you're not going to think that, but I did, and I did believe and I still do believe in that. I have been to others since where I had pains in my shoulders and this chap that my Dad knew did a healing on me and my shoulder went better almost within an hour, now whether that was psychologically I don't know,

I've been going back to Reiki healing recently yeah, so, I mean some of them you can go to Reiki healists and they charge you quite a bit of money, but there is a local group in our area that let people give a donation of a pound or whatever you can afford and I've started to go back to that. And I always feel better, but I don't know whether it's psychological, but I don't care. [laughs] Yeah.

What my Mum says to it is, 'I thought you'd given up trying to heal yourself', I'm thinking 'No'. What she say to me, because she doesn't believe in it and it quite hurt me actually, because she doesn't believe in it, she said, 'I thought you'd given up trying to be healed, you know, can't you accept you're not and I said, 'Hey Mum if it makes me feel better, psychologically better for a few days, what the hell.' You know so I take no notice and I go. But it's not for everybody.

 

Reflexology is very relaxing and she was sure it helped her entire body.

Reflexology is very relaxing and she was sure it helped her entire body.

Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 17
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I do have reflexology, that's the one on the feet isn't it, yep, yes I do have that, every week, it's a friend of mine that does it. I do have that most weeks. I was her guinea pig to start with so, and it is lovely, it's wonderful. But sometimes I come away thinking 'Oh I'm more stiff than when I went', but yeah it does, it is good, I would recommend that to anybody, it is brilliant, and it makes you feel so relaxed, especially when she uses the oils as well, in with it. It's very good.

And you know for somebody who's not familiar with it, what does she do?

She usually puts some nice soothing music on and massages, wipes your feet over first and then massages them with, sometimes with oils, sometimes not with oils and she'll sort of, it's explaining, pinch and nip and, but not, not in a hurtful way, it's wonderful, massaging your feet, but it helps all over your body and she, funnily enough she can tell if you've got a headache or whatever, I never actually believed it at first, but I didn't actually tell her that I'd been having pain in my neck and she said it's really crunchy, is there something wrong with your neck, and I couldn't believe that she didn't, hadn't been told, but just by massaging my feet, it sends you to sleep, it's lovely, very relaxing. T

Try it, its good. And it's not very expensive either, she actually has started charging now, but purely because of the oils and things, but when I was a guinea pig she did it for nothing, so if you've got a friend that can do it, do it [laughs]. It's very good and it helps, not just with the arthritis but it helps other things as well, stress, blood pressure, everything. And she used different oils for different things, so it is good.

I didn't believe it, I didn't believe it to start with. But it is very good, maybe it just relaxes you so much that you forget about the rest of the things, whatever it is it's good, it relaxes you more than anything and it does help.

Massage by therapists or spouses on joints was felt beneficial, although some people had difficulty lying on their front, and others taking steroids had sensitive skin and found they were quite bruised afterwards.

A few people had found relief of joint stiffness and increased mobility after acupuncture, but others were afraid of needles. One woman had tried electronic acupuncture 'done by a little machine which sends a pulse through the skin'. The therapist worked on her elbows and she got some relief.

 

Acupuncture was very helpful.

Acupuncture was very helpful.

Age at interview: 42
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 17
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Yeah, I've, I've  was under the physiotherapist recently and I'd got problems with my shoulder they wanted to try and keep some mobility in the shoulder and I ended up having some the needle, acupuncture, I had some acupuncture, and I found that was very, very, helpful. They also gave me a few sort of exercises as well that I could do as and when I sort of needed to do perhaps. But  we've not really gone on that to, sort of too far really, I had a spell for perhaps for about six, six or seven months with  the acupuncture and things seemed to improve that much that they decided that that was fine, I could sort of stop it.

So would you be happy to have acupuncture again? 

I would yes, yes. I can certainly see the benefits of that, in I mean you know if what I've seen in that one area of, with the working on my shoulder, is anything to go by for the rest of the body, then I'd be more than happy to have it would, if it was a help and it was suggested that wouldn't be a problem, whatsoever.

Would you consider going privately to an acupuncturist?

Yes, if you know, if it needed, needed that certainly. I think the benefits that they, they bring you know, you, you can't put a price on as such. 

One woman used disassociation to help control the pain. If her shoulder hurt, for example, she would visualise her shoulder as separate from her body. She took a long time to learn this skill, but found it most effective. Using relaxation techniques, meditation and incense helped others manage their pain.

 

She used disassociation to help control the pain.

She used disassociation to help control the pain.

Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 39
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And then its rest and relaxation, deep breathing I actually use disassociation quite effectively and that is where I meditate and I actually visualise, for argument's sake if it's my right shoulder that's really burning, I actually visualise that that shoulder being separate to my body which then, it does actually in truth means you cannot use your right arm. 

However it is very effective because then that, because it's not connected to you, you can't feel the pain and that's a very I use that  with rest. So rest and disassociation, so if you're lying quietly on the couch or on the bed and you're in absolute agony you just really concentrate on all parts of your body, focus on, on the pain and then focus on it being removed from you. It took a long time to learn that skill. I have to say, it's not something that you can just think, 'Well that's easy, anyone can do it.' It does take time, but it's so effective. 

And that disassociation, does that just last as long as you sort of lying down and...?

You've, you can't, well you can walk away, around with, if it's sort of an arm or a shoulder, you can't walk around if it's a knee or a hip or an ankle, you, you would literally fall flat on your face if you tried to get up because [Hmm] it's weird, because of the way the mind works it, it, it's saying, 'That, that is not there.' Hmm. It's to do with mind mapping, I mean, we, we use less than 1% of our brains it's all this business.

If you like it's the same as, you hit your foot, a message goes from your brain down to your foot to say it hurts or you've got to watch it. Well it's doing that in reverse. You've already got the hurt there so all you're doing is blocking that channel from the brain saying that that hurts. Or removing it, or disassociating it from you. So, and that's quite effective and it gives, gives a lot of respite when you're in pain. 

A 38 year old woman considered homeopathic medicine helpful, but another woman gave it up because it didn't seem to work. Two women felt that taking Bach's Flower remedies improved their general well being if not specifically their RA.

 

Homeopathic remedies helped her arthritis.

Homeopathic remedies helped her arthritis.

Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 21
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I take homeopathic I find that seems to help, even though I'm one of these that sort of sits on the fence thinking 'This should not work' it's not a, 'How does this stuff work?' but I don't know whether it's coincidence or what but something seems to happen there so.

Something in particular?

Yeah I just find that I took some over the weekend when I wasn't particularly well at all and within 24 hours, I, it wasn't just, I noticed a really strong difference so with this particular, cos, it's only just, I've only recently been seeing this new homeopath and maybe she's just been able to find the one I don't know because I've gone to homeopaths before and nothing's really sort of, but somebody recommended this one, so I thought well have a go and it's, it's, I wouldn't say it's dramatic but there is definitely a strong change in certain remedies I have taken recently and yeah I couldn't believe, I've, I've been writing a journal type thing to do with health which is quite interesting because I've looked back over the last 3 or 4 months and it's quite weird how there's reactions to certain things, or certain remedies or certain foods, or certain weather and that's been an interesting exercise to do. 

But yeah, if some people were interested in homeopathic then they explore it and it is available on the NHS as well, so if you've got a sympathetic doctor who can refer you to a practitioner, there are practitioners working within the NHS on it. So there must be something in it for the NHS to support it, it's just finding a doctor that's happy to refer you to.

I'm alright I've got a brilliant GP who's quite happy to do that, cos usually you've explored every other avenue so this is another door that opens that possible can help, even if it makes you sleep a little bit better or remove the anxiety a little bit, then it might have a knock on effect somewhere else, so go for it, have a go, you're not losing anything except for a bit of time sometimes and sometimes it's pennies as well so you need to balance it out, because I've taken alternative with, like herbal stuff.

 

She found homeopathy was available on the NHS but it didn't help her arthritis.

She found homeopathy was available on the NHS but it didn't help her arthritis.

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 2
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I've done homeopathy which didn't do anything for me at all. In fact I kept forgetting to take them, tablets because they weren't painkillers, so I tried that for a while and then I gave that up. And it was, to actually get your tablets you had to travel to a hospital, which was about an hour away and I thought, I didn't feel I was benefiting.

Was that an NHS homeopathic hospital?

Yes it was yeah, and I didn't actually know the NHS did it, I thought you had to pay for it, so I didn't actually do it for a long time, and then I found out through magazines, like I do, that it's available on the NHS, found out where it was and went along and tried that as well.

And what did they do when you got there?

They just, they chatted to you and talked about your condition, talked about your lifestyle, what bothers you, what joints hurt and they just gave you, recommended these tablets and you used to have to take them so many times a day. I didn't find it worked for me, I stopped them and never noticed anything.

Were you taking them as well as your anti-inflammatories.

Yes, but I didn't find it beneficial at all for me. It might be to other people, but for me it was a, I didn't bother, it was just another load of tablets that I had to take on top of what I was taking. So I just, because there were quite a few that you had to take and I thought oh, I can't feel any benefit with this and stopped it and still didn't notice any difference. 

Complementary treatments and herbal medicines are not usually available on the NHS, and some patients couldn't afford them for long. Costs can mount up when people need to visit therapists regularly or when several types of treatments are tried. However, a few people said that their GPs were sympathetic to complementary approaches and would refer them to NHS consultants who used these treatments for limited periods. Some people had been referred to NHS homeopathic hospitals and although results were mixed the overall holistic approach to how RA affected their lives was appreciated and helped one woman manage her RA better.

 

Even though complementary therapies helped her, she has given them up because they cost too much.

Even though complementary therapies helped her, she has given them up because they cost too much.

Age at interview: 53
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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So I have tried acupuncture which seems to help for a while but the problem with the complementary therapies is that I have to pay for them myself. But the ones that I found beneficial I had to stop using because I couldn't afford to keep up with them. Despite the fact the even the consultant rheumatologist, the professor of rheumatology at the hospital that I was at, his father was a renowned herbalist and swore by herbal medicines and he approved of my interest in complementary medicines, in particular in, particularly in herbal medicines, but I can't afford it. I can't afford it, it costs too much.

One woman took drugs prescribed by her doctors for two years with no success so she wanted to try other approaches. Against her consultant's advice she stopped taking anti-inflammatory drugs and analgesics for many months, having been told that some treatments would work only if she saw them as an alternative to conventional medicine. However, they were not successful and the disease continued to damage her joints.

 

She tried many complementary and alternative therapies without success but wonders if she should...

She tried many complementary and alternative therapies without success but wonders if she should...

Age at interview: 51
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 27
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I think after the first few years of trying those treatments and not having a great deal of success with gold either, we, we moved to another area and next consultant changed, wanted to change the gold on to another strong anti, anti rheumatic treatment. I think it was then I started looking at alternative therapies.

Everything under the sun, diets, acupuncture, you name it I tried it and to begin with, I thought I was having a, a measure of success. I believed in, believed in the alternative therapy wholeheartedly, I really thought if I progressed with it and stuck with it and did it properly that I would actually be able to get on top of the disease. I did that for several years. 

Some of the, some of the alternative therapies, required that I stop all allopathic treatment, all drug treatment, so for about 18 months, I was not on any anti-inflammatories or painkillers. With some of the treatments I could carry on with the drugs. At the end of the day I, it didn't stop the destruction of the disease. I have it fairly aggressively and it's sort of worked its way through my joints and did an enormous amount of damage. 

So then went on to joint replacement. Still trying to stay with a healthy lifestyle and a good diet, and still trying things that were suggested to me. 

I think, I think if I'd just been diagnosed now I would have launched myself into all the alternative things, right at the very beginning, just in case. You do hear of people finding things that work. Different things work for different people. And I think, bearing in mind that the drug therapy can't cure you and it can have some bad side effects that you, you can't lose anything by, by trying these things. 

And, and some of them have health benefits, most of the diets are, are fairly healthy for you. I think probably if you can, if you can have the self-discipline to, to give them a really good go I'm sure some people do benefit. I often ask myself whether I, I tried hard enough or whether I should have tried sooner, whether I would have had more success.

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Last reviewed August 2016.

Last updated September 2010.

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