Mud Bath Therapy for Arthritis

Some say they help easy disease-related pain

Mud bath therapy has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Natural treatments like mud therapy aren't well-studied, so quality research supporting their use is lacking. However, modern research that has been done indicates that mud baths appear to have some beneficial effects for people with knee osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and psoriatic arthritis (PsA).

Mud baths are a type of balneotherapy, which involves the use of mineral-rich water or mud for treatment purposes. 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. The mud is typically heated to around 100 degrees F.

Research confirming the benefits of mud baths is scant. But according to a review of balneotherapy treatments, evidence indicates that these therapies may:

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

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

Woman applying mud to shoulder
Kryssia Campos / Getty Images

How Mud Therapy Works

Certainly, heated 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 than 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 is thought to ease muscle pain.
  • Sulfur: Commonly suggested as a supplement for osteoarthritis, sulfur is essential to your body's synthesis of some important proteins.

Varieties of Mud

This isn't a treatment you'll find in many (if any) medical settings. It's generally something you'd go to a spa for, though there are at-home mud products as well.

Mud from different regions of the world has unique properties, including varying mineral content. The mud used in these treatments generally comes from three sources:

  • 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.

Use for Osteoarthritis

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.

Use for RA and Other Rheumatic Diseases

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 similar treatments for rheumatological and musculoskeletal conditions. It found that the therapies appeared to be at least somewhat effective for:

  • Pain
  • Function
  • Quality of life

This review also further supported that mineral-containing mud provides 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 are needed.

A 2019 study shed further light on the effectiveness of mud baths. Participants with RA, ankylosing spondylitis (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 in function, pain intensity, and disease activity that lasted for at least three months after treatment. 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.
  • Levels of the anti-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-10 (IL-10) rose.

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.

Despite mud bath therapy lacking a body of solid, supportive research, it may be a treatment worth considering for the mere fact that it could have some benefits and poses little risk.

Use for Psoriatic Arthritis

This same 2018 review also looked at studies of mud therapies for psoriatic arthritis. It was noted 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 only 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.

DIY Mud Packs

Some people prefer do-it-yourself mud treatments, whether for convenience purposes, cost savings, lack of access to spas that offer this service, etc.

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.

If you prefer not to submerge yourself entirely, you can just spread the mixture on the area that hurts. Follow product instructions regarding when to wash the mud off (usually after about 20 minutes).

Know, however, that these products are often intended for facials and other skin-benefiting applications and may or may not work like professional spa mud therapies.

Since sodium, magnesium, and sulfur are the components purported to provide the benefits of mud treatments, albeit with very little research behind these claims, you may want to look for products that contain one or more of them.

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).

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.

If you are interested, it may be worth a try. As always, talk it over with your doctor and make an informed decision.

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