The autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis affects more than 1.3 million people in the United States. While the condition is far more common in women and people designated female at birth than men and people designated male at birth, it can affect anyone at any age.
“It’s not actually a disease of old age — it’s a disease of immune dysfunction,” says rheumatologist Rochelle Rosian, MD. “There can be a genetic predisposition. But usually, we think there’s a trigger for the condition, something that overtakes your system and sets it off.”
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What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is “an inflammatory polyarthritis,” says Dr. Rosian. “Your body attacks the lining of joints.” Over time, this can cause the cushion around these joints to break down. “Rheumatoid arthritis causes erosions,” she explains. “It destroys those joints. This can lead to loss of independence because you can’t do things like bathing, dressing and feeding yourself.”
Dr. Rosian says rheumatoid arthritis can affect any joint in your body. However, it most commonly affects small joints, like those in your hands and feet. Still, rheumatoid arthritis is considered a systemic illness, meaning your whole body feels its impact.
“When you have strep throat, the infection is in your throat, but you feel sick all over,” says Dr. Rosian. “It’s similar with rheumatoid arthritis. You feel unwell, almost like you have the flu. You have a fever, but don’t run a temperature. Or you may lose weight.”
Other common signs and symptoms include muscle stiffness in the morning, swollen joints that are hot to the touch, fatigue and pain that’s symmetrical — meaning it emerges in both of your hands or both of your feet.
Natural treatments for rheumatoid arthritis
Managing rheumatoid arthritis without medication is possible. Dr. Rosian says the main ways to manage rheumatoid arthritis without medication involve modifications to diet and exercise
Current natural remedies that can help rheumatoid arthritis include:
What you eat matters with rheumatoid arthritis. “The best natural treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is an anti-inflammatory diet,” says Dr. Rosian. “This diet typically is low in animal protein. You would eat more plant-based proteins, including legumes, nuts and seeds.”
An anti-inflammatory diet isn’t necessarily vegetarian, though. “Some people are sensitive to things like lactose or gluten,” Dr. Rosian explains. “If anything you eat bothers your stomach or your gastrointestinal system, you should minimize it.”
With rheumatoid arthritis, you want to keep moving and stay as limber as possible. “Any kind of arthritis is, ‘use it or lose it,’” says Dr. Rosian. “If you let it rest, it’ll rust. So, stretching is important. Applying heat and ice are also really good treatments for keeping your ligaments tendons and joints lubricated.”
When you’re stretching and exercising, following good mechanics — in other words, maintaining proper posture and muscle movement and positioning — is important so you avoid joint strain.
“When you’re walking, you want to avoid your feet rolling in or out because that could affect your knees or your hips,” says Dr. Rosian. “Keep an even gait, maintain good posture and engage your abdominal muscles. You want to make sure you’re wearing smart shoes, not flip-flops.”
For daily activities you might do around the house, Dr. Rosian also recommends using care so you don’t strain joints. Use kitchen tools that have a thicker grip and wear gloves while chopping food to get more support. “Pick the kind of tools to use where your joints don’t have to work as hard,” she advises. “There are many brands of kitchen and garden tools that have more soft, squishy grips.”
When writing, you can also put a grip on your pen and pencil to make everything “a little bit chubbier and a little bit squishier,” she adds. “A lot of people also get wrist supports to use when they’re on their computer, or cushions under their mouse or under their keyboards.”
Omega-3 fish oil
Supplements of omega-3 fish oil — specifically the type with DHA and EPA, both found in seafood — are recommended. Dr. Rosian says the typical dose to address inflammation is 1,000 milligrams twice a day. However, fish oil can interfere with certain other prescription medications, so you should always talk to your doctor before starting to take this.
Some studies have shown turmeric to have anti-inflammatory effects. Dr. Rosian says 750 milligrams twice a day, or 1,000 milligrams once a day, is the ideal dose.
Natural remedies to avoid
Not every natural remedy touted to treat rheumatoid arthritis is safe or effective. For example, Dr. Rosian says supplements such as glucosamine and MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) likely don’t have much of an impact.
You should also steer clear of any supplement that says it’s an immune booster. “This sounds counterintuitive, but people should avoid immune boosters,” Dr. Rosian adds. “This can boost your whole immune system.”
While that might sound like a good thing, this has the potential for unintended bad side effects, she notes. “People living with rheumatoid arthritis don’t have a weak immune system. They have a dysfunctional immune system. So, it’ll boost the good parts of their immune system — and also boost the part that’s not functioning properly.”
Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis
Despite the natural remedies for rheumatoid arthritis, some people do need additional medication or treatment to treat the condition.
Years ago, aspirin was a mainstay of therapy for rheumatoid arthritis. “The problem is it doesn’t modify the disease,” says Dr. Rosian. “It helps with the inflammation, but it doesn’t slow the progression. And it gives people lots of bruising and bleeding at the doses that you need to take it.”
However, people living with rheumatoid arthritis have more options today. “There are more disease-modifying treatments for rheumatoid arthritis now than there ever have been,” says Dr. Rosian. Common treatments include anti-inflammatory meds and prednisone, as well as “more directed treatments, like immunosuppressive medicines and new families of biologics and oral biologics and injectable medications,” she adds.
“It’s a different disease than it used to be 20, 30 years ago,” notes Dr. Rosian. “There are so many good medications that slow down the disease. I like to use the phrase ‘remission on meds.’ People don’t develop joint erosions. People don’t look like they ever have rheumatoid arthritis if we can detect it and we treat them early.”