Do Herbal Remedies for Rheumatoid Arthritis Help?

Chinese herbal medicine

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For people experiencing the stiffness and pain that come with rheumatoid arthritis, some herbal remedies may complement your treatment plan. But before you rush to the health food store, know that the proof on the benefits of these treatments can be limited.

Treatments that are “natural” can still have risks. Talk to your doctor to understand the side effects and possible interactions that occur with some herbal treatments. If your doctor approves it, you might want to try some of these herbal treatments. 

Turmeric

Turmeric is a plant that has been used for healing for thousands of years. Indian health practitioners believed the spice had numerous health benefits, like reducing inflammation, acting as an antioxidant and improving overall health.

For people with rheumatoid arthritis, some modern research suggests that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, can reduce inflammation. Curcumin can regulate certain molecules like chemokines and cytokines, which may lead to inflammation in the body.

In a systematic review of studies on the efficacy of turmeric in the body, researchers found that about 1,000 milligrams (mg) per day of curcumin could help treat arthritis. A 2017 study found that rheumatoid arthritis patients who were given curcumin showed greater improvement in their symptoms than patients who were given a placebo.

Turmeric can be taken as a spice, as a tea, or as a supplement. It is generally safe, although it can interact negatively with blood thinners and chemotherapy medications, as well as lessen the effects of aspirin. Be sure to talk to your doctor before taking turmeric.

Ginger / Zingiber officinale

For centuries, ginger has been used as a healing aid for people who suffered from strokes, stomach ache, diabetes and asthma. Some research suggests that the anti-inflammatory qualities of ginger (Zingiber officinale) can help people with arthritis. 

Ginger contains a number of different compounds, like gingerols and shogaols, that can help reduce inflammation in the body. These compounds may inhibit certain enzymes, reducing pain.

One 2019 study conducted on 70 rheumatoid arthritis patients found that patients given 1,500 mg of ginger powder showed greater improvements than patients given a placebo. Another 2016 study found that ginger effectively reduced inflammation in people after knee surgery.

You can cook with fresh or dried ginger, drink it as a tea, or purchase it in essential oil, powder. or topical treatment form. Ask your doctor before taking ginger, as it can interact with medications that slow blood clotting, medications for high blood pressure, or any diabetes medications.

Cat’s Claw / Uncaria tomentosa

Cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) is a tropical vine found in the Amazon rainforest. The bark and root of it have been used to fight all kinds of diseases, from Alzheimer’s to arthritis. Some research suggests that it reduces inflammation in the body, easing the pain of arthritis symptoms.

In one older study conducted on 40 patients with rheumatoid arthritis, those who took a daily dose of Uncaria tomentosa felt a reduction in the number of swollen, painful joints when compared to those who just took a placebo.

Cat’s claw can be taken as a drink, capsule, extract, or tea. People with autoimmune diseases, low blood pressure, or leukemia should talk to their doctors before taking cat’s claw, as it can stimulate an immune system that is already too active.

Indian Frankincense / Boswellia serrata

Indian Frankincense (Boswellia serrata) has been used for hundreds of years to treat inflammatory illnesses. Some studies have suggested that Boswellia could be a useful supplement to traditional arthritis treatment. One 2014 study found that Boswellia may effectively reduce inflammation in the body, although more research is needed.

Boswellia can be taken in capsule or tablet form. Talk to your doctor before taking this supplement, as it can increase the side effects of other drugs, including immunosuppressants and antidepressants.

Topical Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

While some herbal supplements are taken internally, these may be applied to the skin:

  • Aloe vera 
  • Ginger
  • Eucalyptus 
  • Thunder god vine 

Devil's Claw / Harpagophytum procumbens

Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is a plant native to Africa that has been used as a healing aid on people with malaria, fever, kidney problems and a host of other ailments. The name comes from the plant’s fruits, which look like curved claws.

Some research suggests it reduces inflammation in the body. One 2002 study, conducted on 227 people with arthritis or back pain, found that at least 50% of people who took 60 mg of devil’s claw daily for eight weeks found improvements in their condition. But the evidence of its being an effective treatment is insufficient.

It can be taken in tincture, tea, powder, liquid, or capsule form. Devil’s claw may cause adverse reactions in people with heart disorders, diabetes, gallstones, or stomach ulcers.

Aloe Vera

It’s an alternative medicine go-to that is used on everything from cuts to sunburns, but the anti-inflammatory qualities of aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) can also be a balm for people suffering from joint pain.

While the research on aloe vera and rheumatoid arthritis is lacking, animal studies have found some evidence to suggest that aloe vera could be useful to people with rheumatoid arthritis. In a study conducted on 91 mice, aloe gel stimulated immunity and antibody production.

Aloe vera can be taken as a pill, powder, topical gel, or even in leaf form. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, aloe vera is considered to be generally safe, though topical use of aloe vera gel can cause burning or itching in some people, while oral intake can cause side effects of cramps for others.

Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus is used to treat everything from nasal congestion to skin ulcers. It is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Some people apply eucalyptus oil to their skin to help relieve the symptoms of arthritis.

One 2013 study found that patients who inhaled eucalyptus oil after a knee replacement felt decreases in blood pressure and pain levels.

Eucalyptus is available in topical or oil form and can be applied directly to the inflamed area. Eating eucalyptus oil can be dangerous, unless you are directed to do so by a doctor.

Eucalyptus oil is safe when applied to the skin, but it should not be used on children under age 2. People with asthma, seizures, liver disease, kidney disease, and low blood pressure should talk to their doctors before using eucalyptus. 

Green Tea

For centuries, people have been drinking green tea for its anti-inflammatory properties. Green tea is a great source of polyphenols like epigallocatechin 3-gallate (EGCG). Polyphenols are plant compounds that fight free radicals, the cell-destroying compounds that can wreak havoc in the body.

One 2016 study, conducted on 120 rheumatoid arthritis patients, found that patients who were treated with green tea showed a reduction in swollen or tender joints.  While more research is needed, the Arthritis Foundation still recommends a cup of green tea as a supplement to doctor-approved medical treatments.

Green tea can be taken in liquid extract, tea, or supplement form. Be aware that green tea contains caffeine, and that if you have stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, or kidney or liver problems, your doctor may tell you not to take it.

Thunder God Vine / Tripterygium wilfordii

For centuries, alternative medicine practitioners in China used thunder god vine (Tripterygium wilfordii) to prevent inflammation-caused swelling. Today, some people use it as a dietary supplement for multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.

There isn’t a ton of research on the efficacy of thunder god vine when it comes to arthritis, but the studies that do exist are promising. One 2009 study, which compared treatments of thunder god vine with a traditional drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis (sulfasalazine), found that people who took thunder god vine found their symptoms more improved than those who took the drug.

Another 2014 study compared thunder god vine to another Western arthritis drug (methotrexate) and found that thunder god vine worked just as well as the drug in easing pain and swelling.

It can be taken topically or orally. If the extract isn’t prepared properly, it can be extremely poisonous. Thunder god vine may come with side effects of infertility, menstrual cycle changes, rashes, diarrhea, headache, and hair loss, so ask your doctor before taking it.

Other Alternative Ways to Manage RA

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but the disease can be managed with a combination of early treatment, medication, and a doctor’s supervision. Other ways to manage rheumatoid arthritis include physical or occupational therapy and assistive devices that will help prevent your joints from being overworked.

Hot or cold compresses can also ease pain for some. Doctors recommend regular exercise to strengthen the muscles around the joints.

A Word From Verywell

Discuss herbal treatments with your doctor, and continue with prescriptions. If you decide to use herbal treatments, find a reputable source. Herbal treatments are not regulated by FDA, so quality and purity can vary.

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