Are Alternative Arthritis Treatments Worth The Money?

older couple exercisingThere is no cure for arthritis, but on rare occasions conventional medical treatments can be ineffective and carry significant side effects. As people become more aware of alternative, or complementary, treatments, some arthritis sufferers are turning to less established medical science for relief from their chronic joint pain.

Examples of common alternative treatments for arthritis include nutritional supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, magnets, chiropractic manipulations, massage, and homeopathy, the administration of very small doses of medications that in higher doses may cause illness. Below we examine the effectiveness of seven of the most popular alternative treatments for arthritis pain:

  • Glucosamine Sulfate
    Studies so far are promising, but remain controversial as many of the studies involved small numbers of people, or had other design flaws. Most medical experts agree that glucosamine is relatively safe – though, as with any nutritional supplement, your primary care physician should be made aware that you are using it as there may be interactions with other medications. For example, glucosamine may affect blood glucose metabolism, so people with diabetes need to discuss this with their doctor. In addition, those with shellfish allergies are often told to avoid glucosamine.
  • Chondroitin Sulfate
    Though often combined with glucosamine, chondroitin is not as well studied. Some claim that it helps in building up the synovial fluid – the fluid that helps to lubricate and nourish cartilage – though this has not been proven. If you decide to take chondroitin, inform your doctor, as it may interact with blood thinners.
  • SAM-e
    Also known as S-adenosylmethionine, this supplement has shown promising results in its ability to reduce pain and inflammation. However, other studies are inconclusive.
  • Herbal Supplements
    Various herbal supplements (including curcumin, evening primrose, and ginger) have been promoted to help arthritis sufferers. No conclusive studies have been published on their effectiveness.
  • Shark Cartilage
    At one time, it was thought that sharks did not get cancer – hence the belief that shark cartilage was a cancer fighter. It has also been promoted to maintain cartilage health in humans. Well, sharks do get cancer. Studies show that shark cartilage is of no benefit in either cancer prevention or as an arthritis treatment.
  • Acupuncture
    While medical experts and doctors do not understand how acupuncture works, many arthritis sufferers report that acupuncture is beneficial in relieving symptoms. A large National Institutes of Health study to determine the safety and effectiveness of acupuncture for treating osteoarthritis is currently in progress.
  • Magnets
    Throughout history, magnets have been promoted to provide pain relief and treat conditions ranging from epilepsy to diarrhea. Today, magnets can be found integrated into shoes, wraps, and braces, and can range in cost from a few dollars to several hundred dollars. A number of scientific studies have been completed, but, so far, no conclusive evidence exists that magnet therapy helps relieve arthritis pain.

Many people who try alternative therapies report an improvement in their symptoms – but this may not be due to the therapy. Many individuals who try alternative therapies may not even have arthritis – that is why an accurate diagnosis from a joint specialist is so important. According to the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation, at any given point approximately one-third of arthritis sufferers are entering a normal remission period, another third are getting worse, and another third are experiencing “stable” symptoms. Thus, if this group is given any kind of therapy or treatment, around one-third will automatically report improvement.

When a new prescription or over-the-counter medication is evaluated, it must go through an extensive review system involving medical schools, research institutions and government regulatory agencies before a claim of benefit can be made. This is often not the case for alternative treatments and therapies. Some therapies have been proven to be ineffective in reducing arthritis pain, while others have simply not been adequately evaluated.

If you are suffering from arthritis pain, you should make an appointment with your orthopaedic specialist or primary care physician to discuss your treatment options before trying an alternative treatment. Aside from the fact that you may be spending money on treatments that have been proven ineffective, your doctor will be able to alert you to potential interactions between supplements and prescription or over-the-counter medications you may be taking.

+ Have a question about your arthritis treatment? Contact an arthritis specialist!
+ Learn about the role of Physical Therapy in managing arthritis.

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