Integrative Medicine for Arthritis
About 50 million people in the United States live with some form of arthritis. More than 20 million of them seek medical assistance to deal with this painful chronic—and sometimes acute—condition. Current conventional medical treatment often is inadequate when dealing with the more debilitating symptoms. Adding some alternative therapies for arthritis may provide more relief from symptoms. Integrative Medicine, which combines Western allopathic treatments with complementary therapies, provides a way for the patient to maximize therapeutic results.
What is Integrative Medicine?
Integrative medicine combines the scientific approach to health care with the wisdom of ancient healing practices. For people living with arthritis, Integrative Medicine can transform their lives. This multi-disciplinary approach can provide benefits from whichever therapies are selected by the physician and patient. Complementary therapies are not viewed as substitutes for mainstream medical care; rather, they are used in concert with standard medical treatment to manage symptoms and help reduce stress, pain and anxiety.
Integrative Medicine and Physicians
Conventional medical doctors and patients can work together to develop an Integrative Medicine plan of action for arthritis, which may combine several types of treatment. Along with proper self-care and self-treatment, a physician might recommend the following allopathic treatments:
- Physical and/or hydrotherapy
- Medication to control pain and relieve symptoms
- Instruction about the proper use of joints and ways to conserve energy
- Assistive devices such as splints or braces
- Surgery, if necessary
Studies show that two-thirds of those using some form of alternative medicine don’t tell their doctors. Physicians, however, can’t provide the best professional advice without knowing all of the approaches that their patient uses to treat arthritis. One way an Integrative Medicine physician might combine alternative and traditional treatments is to use a Whole Medical System along with traditional, or allopathic, therapies. Whole Medical Systems tend to treat the body holistically and target factors that might cause arthritis or make arthritis worse.
Integrating Whole Medical Systems with Conventional Medicine
Whole Medical Systems are based on complete theories and have their own practices.
- Homeopathy, which aims to stimulate the body’s own ability to heal itself through minute doses of highly diluted substances.
- Naturopathy, which seeks to support the body’s ability to heal itself through dietary and lifestyle changes with such approaches as massage, herbs, and joint manipulation.
- Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which is based on the belief that disease results from disruption of and imbalance in the flow of energy. Meditation, massage, herbs, and acupuncture are used to restore balance and energy flow.
- Ayurveda, which aims to integrate the body, mind and spirit to prevent and treat disease. Ayurvedic Medicine therapies include yoga, herbs and massage.
Discuss with your physician any of these systems for possible treatment to see how they might interact with conventional treatment, such as surgery and medication.
Integrating Other Modalities with Conventional Medicine
Mind-Body Medicine is an approach designed to enhance the mind’s capacity to affect the body. This can include support groups and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Manipulative and Body-Based Practices, such as osteopathic manipulation, chiropractic, and massage, involve moving parts of the body to increase the flow of blood and oxygen to the affected areas. Other therapies might add to the comfort and health of the patient. Some specific therapies can be explored for integration with conventional medical treatment for arthritis might include:
- Acupuncture and acupressure, which are ancient Chinese skills. During acupuncture, fine needles are inserted into the skin at strategic points on the body. Several acupuncture research studies have shown both a decrease in pain and an improvement in mobility for those with osteoarthritis. Acupressure practitioners use their fingers instead of needles. Studies suggest these treatments release endorphins and may decrease inflammation. Select a licensed and certified practitioner. Pregnant women should advise their practitioner of their pregnancy as treatments of some acupoints can induce labor.
- Supplements, a way to enhance other therapies. You can view a supplement guide for arthritis. Discuss supplements with a physician when used before or after surgery or in addition to traditional medication.
- Massage therapy, a pathway for improving blood circulation to enhance relaxation and flexibility. Research shows that massage can ease muscle pain and spasms, increase the body’s production of natural pain-killing endorphins, decrease stress hormones and depression, and improve sleep and immune function.
- Yoga, a technique for employing breathing techniques with gentle stretching to promote relaxation, improve flexibility, and reduce stress. Discuss with the instructor which postures are most helpful for arthritis patients. Chair yoga and laughter yoga might be the best options.
- Hypnotherapy, a method of deep relaxation that helps to relieve pain and open one’s mind to positive suggestions.
Selecting Options with a Physician
Here are some tips for discussing Integrative Medicine with a physician:
- Tell the doctor about all the alternative treatments being considered.
- If the doctor is negative about a particular therapy, or combination of therapies, ask for a detailed explanation.
- If the medical provider doesn’t object, ask for a prescription or referral for an alternative therapy. The therapy might be covered by health insurance if the doctor prescribes it.
Note that not all therapies work the same for all people, nor do all therapies work well with each other. Work with your doctor to decide which alternative therapies might work best.
Is Integrative Medicine Safe?
Women who are pregnant or nursing, or people who are thinking of using alternative treatments for a child, should use extra caution and consult their health-care providers.
What is Arthritis?
Arthritis is an acute or chronic inflammation of the joints that causes pain and structural changes. It can be caused by an injury or infection, a genetic predisposition, or systemic issues. Among the most common forms of arthritis are rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, gout, and juvenile arthritis. While the causes and consequences of arthritis are many and varied, the treatments can be as well.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health
The Arthritis Foundation
Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, “Integrative Medicine Approaches to Arthritis”:
University of Maryland School of Medicine, “Arthritis and Related Disorders”
Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, Integrative Therapies for Rheumatic Diseases