Mud Bath Therapy for Arthritis

Would Mud Baths Be a Good Adjunctive Treatment for Arthritis Pain?

In This Article

Mud therapy, which is a type of balneotherapy, has been used medicinally for thousands of years, and modern research suggests it could have some beneficial effects for people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other chronic-pain conditions.

According to a review of balneotherapy treatments for the immune system and stress response, evidence shows that these therapies can:

  • Lower inflammation
  • Alleviate pain
  • Lessen oxidative stress
  • Delaying progressive joint damage
  • Promote the building and repair of organs and tissues

All of these factors are believed to play a role in RA and other inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

Natural treatments don't usually have a lot of quality research supporting their use. Mud therapy is no exception. However, the research that has been done appears promising for:

How Mud Therapy Works

Balneotherapy involves the use of mineral-rich water or mud. With water, you immerse yourself. With mud, you can immerse your whole body, soak a body part (like a hand or foot), or pack mud around a part that's harder to soak, like a knee.

This isn't a treatment you'll find in many medical settings; it's generally something you'd go to a spa for.

Certainly, heat from water or mud is soothing on its own, but some research suggests that the effect goes beyond that, and that mineral-rich mud and water are more beneficial those without minerals. The specific minerals believed to offer benefits include:

  • Sodium, such as sea salt: Soaking in salty solutions is believed to help lower inflammation and soothe skin.
  • Magnesium: One of the components of Epsom salt, magnesium solutions are thought to ease muscle pain.
  • Sulfur: Commonly suggested in supplement for for osteoarthritis, sulfur is essential to your body's synthesis of some important proteins.

Varieties of Mud

Mud from different regions of the world has different properties—including very high mineral content. Basically, there are three sources of mud used in mud baths:

  • Natural hot springs, where it's often mixed with volcanic ash
  • Beds of ancient lakes (e.g., Moor mud)
  • Sea beds (e.g., the Dead Sea)

Very little research has looked at whether one source of mud is better than another.

DIY Mud Packs

If you want to try an at-home mud bath or pack, you can buy different types of clay and volcanic ash from some beauty supply or natural-healing stores and websites and mix them with water. Then just spread it on the area that hurts. Some websites recommending DIY treatments say to wash it off after about 20 minutes.

These products are often intended for facials and other skin applications and may or may not work like professional spa mud therapies.

Buyer Beware

Health claims on products like clay and volcanic ash are generally not backed up by scientific evidence and aren't regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Research the ingredients yourself so you know whether they're safe and possibly effective for your purposes.

RA and General Rheumatic Disease

RA and many other rheumatic diseases involve pain and inflammation that take a big toll on functionality and quality of life.

A 2017 review of scientific literature looked at mud therapy and other similar treatments. It found that they appeared to be at least somewhat effective for:

  • Pain
  • Function
  • Quality of life
  • Clinical disease parameters

What's more, mineral-containing mud providing longer lasting results than mud without minerals. Still, researchers said the evidence so far wasn't strong enough to draw firm conclusions and that larger well-designed studies were needed.

A 2018 review by Italian researchers said balneotherapy appeared to be more beneficial for types of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis (AS) and enteropathic spondylitis (ES) than for RA. It also said the treatments appeared to be safe, with negative side effects only reported in a few participants.

A 2019 study shed some light on why these treatments may be effective. Participants with RA, AS, and other inflammatory, degenerative diseases took a series of nine mud baths over a three-week period while a control group was given physical therapy.

The mud-bath group had more significant improvements that lasted for at least three months after treatment in:

  • Function
  • Pain intensity
  • Disease activity

The physical-therapy group saw some improvement but less than the mud-bath group.

In addition, researchers discovered the mud-bath group had significant changes in two biomarkers related to inflammation. Levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-1 beta (IL-1ß) dropped while levels of the anti-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-10 (IL-10) rose.

Mud Therapy for OA

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. When it strikes the knees, it's a major cause of mobility impairment and disability. For that reason, it's studied more often than OA in most other joints.

In a 2013 review of 20 studies on perceived pain, function, and quality of life in people with knee OA, researchers concluded that mud-pack therapy was an effective alternative therapy. They did, however, call for better-designed studies to look at just how effective it could be.

A 2018 review said that mud-bath and mud-pack therapy for knee OA are effective for:

A study published in 2020 looked into why balneotherapy may be an effective treatment for OA. It confirmed earlier research that these treatments can lower levels of pro-inflammatory mediators and suggested that they can stimulate the immune system to balance pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses in your body.

Mud Therapy for PsA

A 2018 Italian review mentioned above also looked at studies of mud therapies for psoriatic arthritis. It says that, while only a few randomized controlled trials have been done, they've had good results.

One of those studies, published in 2015, evaluated the effect of mud-bath therapy on people with psoriatic arthritis taking TNF-blocking medications.

Half of the 36 participants received mud-bath therapy while continuing treatment with their TNF blocker while the others just took the medication. Results were measured in multiple ways, including the Psoriasis Area and Severity Index (PASI), ultrasound, and counts of swollen and tender joints.

Several measures revealed significant improvements in the mud-bath group that weren't experienced by the control group. Researchers concluded that mud-bath therapy is effective and appears to decrease inflammation in the joint lining in people with PsA.

A Word From Verywell

When you live with chronic arthritis pain, it's common to need treatments other than just medication to control all of your symptoms. When added to the treatment regimen established by you and your doctor, mud therapy may have some benefits to offer.

As always, talk it over with your doctor and make an informed decision.

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