Arthritis is a common condition—an estimated 50 million Americans report a diagnosis of arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and the pain resulting from this inflammation of the joints can significantly decrease our quality of life. Yet many over-the-counter pain medications for arthritis have been linked with problems ranging from calcium loss and gastrointestinal upset to liver damage and, rarely, even death. Potential side effects also vary from one medication to another and from person to person (including with homeopathic remedies), so it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor or pharmacist when you’re considering your options for finding relief.
If you suffer from arthritis pain, take comfort knowing that you may be able to relieve suffering naturally. Many natural options have been shown to reduce pain and inflammation, offering relief from the ache and discomfort of this common ailment. While there are many types of arthritis, the two most common are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Regardless of which type of arthritis you’re experiencing, there are herbs, foods, supplements and lifestyle adjustments that may help minimize your suffering.
Healing Herbs for Arthritis
Devil’s claw: Don’t let the name scare you—devil’s claw is a powerful anti-inflammatory herb. A study in the journal Rheumatology found that a devil’s claw extract providing 60 milligrams (mg) daily of the active ingredients, harpagosides, was as effective as the drug Vioxx, without the drug’s serious side effects (which were dangerous enough—including a significant increase in heart attack or stroke, and death—that it’s since been removed from the market). Avoid if you have ulcers or gallstones.
Willow bark: One of the original sources of salicin, the naturally occurring chemical used to develop aspirin, willow bark has been shown in some studies to be as effective for reducing pain and inflammation as aspirin—and at lower doses. Side effects of willow bark are usually mild but are possible, so as with any change to your health regimen, check with your doctor first. The therapeutic forms of willow bark are usually derived from the species Salix alba, S. fragilis or S. purpurea. Dosages of 60 to 240 mg of salicin daily have been shown effective in studies. Because salicylic acid has blood-thinning properties, avoid it if you are hemophiliac or taking blood-thinning drugs, and don’t give it to children under the age of 16.
Capsaicin, the compound that gives chilies their heat, can also reduce pain and may improve circulation in arthritics. A typical dose is 500 mg three times daily. If you are using an extract of capsaicin, follow the package directions—when taken in excess, capsaicin may cause a mild burning sensation in the stomach. Alternatively, you can sprinkle cayenne powder on food. Be careful to keep it away from your eyes and any broken skin because of the burning sensation it can cause. To be effective, use it consistently and in sufficient doses (1⁄4 teaspoon is about the equivalent of 400 mg of cayenne).
Food for Arthritis
Berries: Tart cherry extract is 10 times more effective than aspirin at relieving inflammation and the pain linked to it, according to studies conducted by Muraleedharan Nair, a professor at Michigan State University. Nair’s study participants obtained these results by drinking 2 tablespoons of concentrated tart cherry juice daily. Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries may have similar pain-alleviating effects—drink concentrated juice or eat about 50 berries daily.
Ginger is an effective anti-inflammatory that helps alleviate pain, according to new research published in The Journal of Pain. In research conducted by Krishna C. Srivastava, a researcher at Odense University in Denmark, more than 50 percent of people had significant improvements in pain, swelling and morning stiffness after eating ginger daily for three months. The study found ginger to be superior to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Tylenol or Advil. Srivastava found that while NSAIDs block the formation of inflammatory compounds, ginger performs this function and also has antioxidant effects that break down existing inflammation. Add grated fresh ginger to meals or try this Pain Relief Tea listed on the last page.
Turmeric is the yellow spice commonly used in Indian curries. In one study conducted at the University of Arizona, it was found to not only reduce inflammation but to decrease joint damage in arthritis sufferers. For acute pain, take up to 4 tablespoons of turmeric powder per day mixed into hot water; add honey and drink throughout the day. Or eat 4 tablespoons daily by adding turmeric to soups, vegetables, meats and curries. You can also take turmeric via curcumin (its therapeutic constituent) capsules, but studies have found that our bodies use curcumin more effectively when it’s consumed with fat or peppers. Choose extracts with up to 1,500 mg of curcumin content per day, following label instructions.
Restorative Supplements for Arthritis
Glucosamine sulfate is naturally found in healthy cartilage. We can add to our bodies’ natural supplies by supplementing with 500 mg three times daily for 30 to 90 days, which may help alleviate pain after about three months. Avoid glucosamine if you are allergic to shellfish.
Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) naturally occurs in green vegetables, fruits and grains. It is taken in supplement form for its reported anti-pain and anti-inflammatory properties.
Because it has blood-thinning properties, avoid using MSM if you are taking pharmaceutical blood thinners, including acetaminophen. Typical doses range from 1,500 mg to 5,000 mg a day.
Fish oils and the essential fatty acids they contain—eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—are anti-inflammatories. Eat fatty fish such as wild salmon a few times a week or supplement with 1,000 to 3,000 mg of fish or flax oil daily. A common daily dose is around 500 mg of EPA and 360 mg of DHA.
Stay hydrated. When dealing with pain, it is important to drink plenty of water. Many people are chronically dehydrated, which may worsen pain and prevent the body from properly reducing inflammation. Think of water extinguishing a fire, and you’ll have an idea what’s happening in the body. Drink at least 10 eight-ounce glasses of water daily.
Stress less. Stress hormones can aggravate inflammation, so it’s important to manage stress. Try deep breathing throughout the day. Check out our article Natural Stress Relievers to learn more about naturally reducing stress.
Stay active. While it may be tempting not to use achy joints, exercise can prevent further stiffening and reduce joint pain. Try to get at least 20 minutes of exercise three times per week. Ask your doctor to recommend the best exercises (strength, range-of-motion or aerobic) for your type of arthritis and your personal case. The Arthritis Foundation offers an exercise program via classes nationwide and DVDs.
This juice takes advantage of the more than 20 anti-inflammatory compounds in celery, which were discovered by renowned herbalist James Duke.
• 1 cucumber
• 4 stalks celery
• 1 apple
Pass all ingredients through a juicer or whirl in a blender with a little water. Drink immediately.
Pain Relief Tea
This simple and delicious tea can be made in advance and stored in the fridge for about four days. Don’t let its simplicity fool you—it has powerful therapeutic effects. Drink three cups of tea daily for best results.
• 3-inch piece fresh ginger root
• 6 cups water
• Stevia drops or powder
1. Chop ginger into small slices and add to a medium-sized pot of water.
2. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Let simmer for at least 30 minutes.
3. Add stevia, a natural herbal sweetener that does not affect blood sugar levels, to taste. Try about 2 drops of stevia per cup of ginger tea.