Rheumatoid arthritis currently affects more than 1.5 million people in the United States. In it, the tissue surrounding joints (called synovium) becomes inflamed, leading to heat, swelling, and pain. Eventually the inflamed synovium damages the bones and cartilage of the joints. It is considered an autoimmune disorder; an abnormal immune response causes the body to think of the synovium tissue as a foreign entity. There is currently no cure, but there are several treatment protocols that can help relieve the symptoms.
Unfortunately, as with any disease, claims for miracle cures run rampant. And there’s not nearly as much published debunking those claims as there is promotion by those who make them. When Arthritis Research UK did a study of 25 “alternative” methods of treatment for Rheumatoid arthritis and all the other forms, only a few were judged to be of any use. Among those were yoga, massage, and relaxation therapy. But even those merely eased symptoms and did not reverse the disease process. When a randomized trial compared real acupuncture to non-penetrating “sham” acupuncture in rheumatoid arthritis patients, there was no difference in symptoms within the two groups.
Two of the most common “cures” for arthritis are copper bracelets and magnetic therapy. Copper is considered a folk remedy for arthritis, and the theory behind wearing a copper bracelet is that the copper of the bracelet will be absorbed through the skin. Magnet therapy makes claims to relieve arthritis through “realignment” of magnetic fields, or increase or reduce blood flow to the affected area. A study in 1976 indicated that wearing a copper bracelet seemed to ease arthritic symptoms, but no further studies were conducted for 33 years. A study comparing copper bracelets and magnet bracelets done after the 33-year gap said there was no difference in the test and control groups. Since rheumatoid arthritis can go into remission for long periods of time, treatments that happen to coincide with the remission can be falsely believed to have caused the remission.
So what does work in treating rheumatoid arthritis? Steroids and NSAIDs can decrease the inflammation in joints. DMARDs, or disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs like methotrexate can slow the progression of arthritis. Some DMARDs work to specifically block the inflammation process, while others surgical procedures, from joint replacement to joint removal and bone fusion, can help some patients. Not all of the treatments are medicinal: low-impact exercise, splinting affected joints, and rest are also recommended. But for any other rheumatoid arthritis treatments, the evidence is clear: don’t waste the money.
Note: Consult your doctor before following the recommendations stated above.
(Photo via Wikipedia/James Heilman, MD)