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Arthritis Today

Should You See an Herbalist for Arthritis?

If you decide to consult an herbalist, look for special training and affiliations.

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Rather than rely completely on traditional pharmaceutical medications, some people with arthritis also look to herbal products – and the expertise of an herbalist -- to provide natural relief for some of their symptoms.

Herbal medications, also called botanicals, are derived from plants and in some cases have been used for centuries. Arthritis patients often look for ones that can help combat inflammation. See 9 Supplements for Arthritis for information about herbs used for arthritis symptoms.

Paul F. Howard, MD, Director of Arthritis Health, an integrated rheumatology practicein Scottsdale, Arizona says in his practice, herbal medicines are used as adjuvants to pharmaceutical agents, which lessens the need for some medications.

“Herbal medicines and supplements can help control inflammation although the benefits are not as well studied as pharmaceutical medications. Certainly there is a long history of observational medicine that attests to the anti-inflammatory benefits of certain herbal products,” Dr. Howard explains. 

Herbal Medicine – Safety and Science

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the use of dietary supplements, which include herbal medicines, is big business. Almost half of all Americans over two months of age take a vitamin, mineral or dietary supplement. In 2007, data showed Americans were spending $33.9 billion out of pocket on visits to complementary and alternative medicine practitioners and purchases of products, classes and materials.

But herbal medicines are not scientifically studied in the same way as prescription medications. Manufacturers are expected to follow good practices and have to be truthful with their claims, but they don’t need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before selling their products. The agency can, however, order a product removed from store shelves if it deems it unsafe.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has an herb guide to help you research what botanicals are said to do and what their side effects are. The Dietary Supplement Label Database – run by the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements and the National Library of Medicine -- lists the full label contents of all supplements available in the U.S. But sorting through the claims and benefits of herbal medicines can still be a lot of work. Even once you’ve done your own research, many still feel uncertain about how to proceed. That’s where an herbalist may be able to help.

What Do Herbalists Do?

Herbalists are people who have been extensively trained in herbal medicines and herbal supplements. There are a number of different training programs and certifications available to practitioners of complementary medicine, and many receive training in the use of natural medicines. Whenever possible, it’s best to seek out the guidance of a certified herbalist or a practitioner who has been licensed in your state. Some physicians also practice holistic medicine and give out herbs.

“If someone is wanting at any point in their disease, either early on or later, to try more natural treatments -- such as diet supplements and herbal medications -- I encourage them to seek out a practitioner. Herbalists, naturopathic physicians and allopathic physicians are familiar with these therapies. Diet, herbal medicines and supplements may help reduce the amount of standard pharmacologic agents needed in managing inflammation and pain,” Dr. Howard suggests.

Experts say working with someone can be helpful given their knowledge base. And they caution: Be careful of herbs bought overseas, since you don’t know how they are monitored in other countries.

Remember – even though herbal medicines are sold over the counter, you always want to talk with your physician before starting any sort of herbal medicines to make sure they don’t interact with your prescription medications.

Specialties To Look For

  • An herbalist (RH AHG: Registered Herbalist, American Herbalists Guild; MCPP: Member College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy; FNIMH: Fellow, National Institute of Medical Herbalists; MNIMH: Member, National Institute of Medical Herbalists)
  • A licensed or registered acupuncturist (LAc or RAc)
  • A diplomat in Ayurvedic Health Sciences (DAv)
  • A doctor of Oriental medicine (DOM)
  • A diplomat of Chinese herbology (DipCH)
  • A naturopathic physician (ND)
  • A medical doctor (MD)
  • Pharmacist (PharmD)

Updated June 25, 2015

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