5 Ways to Find Safe and Natural Relief from Osteoarthritis
The search for safe and effective relief from osteoarthritis (OA), a condition that occurs when joint cartilage wears down over time, can feel like an uphill battle. Vioxx, the drug once widely touted as the answer to OA pain relief, was pulled from the market after studies showed a drastic increase in heart attack and stroke risk among people using it. Many of the 20 million Americans suffering from OA, were left looking for alternatives—only to learn in a study published by the Arthritis Research Council (ARC) earlier this year that almost all of the natural OA remedies are ineffective.
It may sound like enough to make you lose hope, but there is in fact a silver lining: Certain natural remedies can bring lasting relief from OA according to the ARC study and other experts. That’s good news, since the pain, stiffness, and loss of flexibility from arthritis make it the nation’s most common cause of disability.
Natural RemediesRather than risk the potential side-effects of pharmacological or surgical interventions for OA, try these five safe and natural alternatives.
One massage, and call me in the morningSpa-lovers with osteoarthritis will be pleased to learn that all those massages that leave you feeling loose and limber are doing more than just helping you relax. According to a 2006 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Swedish massage improves flexibility, decreases pain, and increases range of motion in individuals with osteoarthritis of the knee. In the study, 68 participants ages 35 and over with osteoarthritis of the knee were randomly assigned either to receive massage therapy immediately or to receive massage after an eight-week delay. Members of the first group received a one-hour Swedish massage twice a week for four weeks, and then once a week for the next four weeks. After eight weeks of massage, patients’ pain, stiffness, and functional ability were all significantly improved compared to the group that did not receive massage. What’s more, even when reassessed eight weeks after finishing massage intervention, the benefits persisted, though to a somewhat lesser degree.
Low-impact exercise“When people start to hurt, they tend to cut back on exercise,” notes Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University Montgomery and Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. But that’s a mistake, as inactivity can make pain and stiffness even worse. “Pilates exercises are great for osteoarthritis, because they keep your spine supple and don’t involve any pounding.” Olson also recommends swimming or doing aqua-aerobics, but she emphasizes the importance of choosing gentle, weight-bearing exercise. “If you cut back too much on weight-bearing, the osteoarthritis just gets worse,” she explains. “You don’t want to parachute, but you do want to stimulate the soft tissue that’s still in there to keep blood flowing to the cartilage that’s left.” Find something you love, and find a way to continue doing it: If walking concrete sidewalks is too hard on your joints, walk on the golf course. Michael Murray, ND, author of several books including the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, concurs. “Increasing muscle strength around joints affected with osteoarthritis has been shown to improve the clinical features and reduce pain,” he notes. “Walking programs help to improve functional status and relieve pain in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee.”
Spice rubUsing a gel containing capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers that gives them their kick, is very effective at providing temporary relief from osteoarthritis pain. Studies have found that capsaicin can deplete the substance that acts to transmit pain signals from nerve endings to the brain and cause inflammation in the joints. Apart from the burning sensation caused when the gel touches the skin, capsaicin gel has virtually no side effects. The trials evaluated by the ARC used a dosage of 0.025 percent or 0.075 percent of capsaicin gel applied four times per day.
Healing herbsThe ARC study evaluated several herbs and herbal combinations and found that one stood above the rest. Phytodolor, a branded combination of three herbs—aspen (Populus tremula), common ash bark (Franxinus excelsior), and golden rob herb (Solidago vigaurea) effectively manages the pain and inflammation associated with OA. Some studies have shown that aspen contains a substance that when ingested inhibits the production of certain prostaglandins in the nerves, resulting in pain relief. Common ash bark and golden rob herb also have pain-relieving properties, and common ash bark is an antioxidant—meaning it may reduce oxidative damage in the joint. The combination of the three herbs has been shown in animal studies to reduce inflammation. No major adverse effects have been reported, though some people do experience diarrhea, stomach upset, or skin reactions.
The SAMe GameFirst discovered in 1952 and widely investigated for its usefulness in treating depression, S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) is now showing promise as a treatment for OA. SAMe is a chemical compound that occurs naturally in the body, where it contributes to the synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters. Studies suggest that when taken as a supplement, SAMe reduces pain and also stimulates the synthesis of collagen and proteoglycans, which are the major components of joint cartilage. Adverse effects are infrequent and mild, but can include nausea, restlessness, headache, dry mouth, and stomach upset. People with depression should consult with a healthcare provider before taking SAMe, as some incidences of anxiety and mania have been reported.
Additional HelpersWhile Murray agrees with the overall accuracy of the ARC report, he thinks the researchers missed the boat on two supplements. “My major issue is that glucosamine sulfate should have scored a 5 [on a scale of 1 to 5] as the reviewers appeared to be swayed by a couple of studies where they should have dug deeper into the results,” he says. “In patients with milder severity of OA symptoms there is a very high placebo response, making it hard to discern any difference between the placebo group and glucosamine sulfate. However, in the studies looking at the subset of subjects with higher pain scores and overall symptoms, there is a clear advantage with glucosamine sulfate.”
In addition, Murray recommends, niacinamide, which has a long history of effectiveness. “It has been a mainstay in the naturopathic treatment of OA for over five decades,” he points out.
As with any health condition, it’s important to check with your healthcare provider before adding any new supplements or undertaking a new exercise regimen. Once you get the go-ahead, though, the approaches recommended here can help you regain your active and healthy lifestyle—without the pain of osteoarthritis.