Many people who have the chronic inflammatory disease rheumatoid arthritis are looking for extra help with the painful symptoms.
The fatigue, joint swelling and agony that can come with disorder, which is caused by a person’s own immune system attacking the joints, can’t be completely banished.
While there are drugs that help slow joint damage and ease the symptoms, they often come with side effects, such as nausea, anemia, high blood sugar, bone loss and a heightened risk for infection.
To avoid those possible risks, some patients seek out alternative therapies to supplement prescription medications they are already taking.
“Over 50 percent of patients I see will have tried or want to try them,” said Dr. Dana DiRenzo, an instructor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at Johns Hopkins University.
Although no large clinical trials have studied these therapies, some, like omega-3 fatty acids are supported by smaller studies, DiRenzo said.
Often, patients are hoping that complementary and alternative therapies might allow them to reduce the amount of medication they take, said Dr. Wei Wei Chi, a rheumatologist and an assistant professor at The Mount Sinai Medical Center.
“Patients like being able to take charge of their own health and this is a way for them to do that,” Chi said.
Because it’s not possible to predict in advance which will be the most helpful for a particular person, Dr. Elizabeth Volkmann encourages patients interested in alternative therapies to try multiple options.
“My approach is to tell patients to do a combination,” said Volkmann, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Very often patients feel they have to choose,” she added. “I don’t think so. Just make sure, whatever you are using, that you tell your doctor so you can be checked for kidney and liver function.”
Below is a list of therapies for which there is some evidence of efficacy in rheumatoid arthritis patients:
A 2018 review article recommended both the Mediterranean diet and fish oil for patients with RA. Any diet that cuts out foods that might have inflammatory effects can help, DiRenzo said.
“Basically you want to avoid processed foods that are high in enriched flours,” she explained. “You want to include a good amount of vegetables, and lean meats and olive oil. The Mediterranean diet fits that bill.”
Another possible addition: foods high in antioxidants, such as blueberries, DiRenzo said.