Supplements Can Help with Arthritis, But Choose Wisely
Vitamins, herbs, and other supplements can fit into your treatment program.
When your joints are stiff and achy, supplements are often a first step toward relief, particularly since prescription and over-the-counter medications sometimes come with unpleasant side effects. “Supplements” usually refers to the vitamins, minerals, animal extracts, enzymes, and herbs that can be used to supplement the nutrition in your diet and the medicines prescribed by your doctor.
Used for centuries to ease aches and pains associated with myriad conditions, many supplements have a proven track record, says James McKoy, MD, chief of rheumatology and director of pain management services at Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii. For people who have mild rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA), appropriate supplements may alleviate symptoms while those who have moderate RA and OA may be able to lower their dose of conventional medicines.
So it’s no wonder a growing number of patients are turning to vitamins, minerals, and herbs to treat the cause of inflammation rather than just the after effects of a disease process. And studies show the strategy works! Some “natural remedies” really can make a difference.
Supplements with Evidence
While experts agree there’s no magic bullet cure for arthritis, a growing body of research suggests that natural remedies from fish oil to chili peppers may help minimize arthritis pain, especially when used in conjunction with traditional treatment. For example, the omega-3 fatty acids found in the oils from certain fish have been shown to modify inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis without the troubling gastrointestinal side effects of traditional treatments. According to the results of at least 13 studies involving more than 500 participants, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduced RA symptoms. Research also suggests omega-3s may help arthritis patients lower their dose of NSAIDs.
Scientists are exploring the effects of other supplements on arthritis pain, too, including borage seed oil and turmeric. However, the best dosages and possible long-term side effects of these supplements are largely unknown. It’s also difficult for scientists to determine the true effects of herbs and extracts due to a phenomenon called the “placebo effect.”
In many research studies, one group of participants is given the actual pill or treatment being tested, while a second unknowingly receives a placebo (Latin for “I will please”), an inactive pill or treatment. Usually, it’s just a sugar pill – harmless but offering no real physical benefit. Demonstrating the power of the mind, a subset of people who take the placebo may experience the same results (reduced arthritis pain, for example) as those who ingest the real drug or supplement.
Selecting the Best Supplements
Supplements in the arthritis world are commonplace. Seduced by the promise of “natural relief,” many patients believe vitamins, minerals, and herbs have no potential for harm. But natural doesn’t always mean safe, and for most supplements, solid scientific evidence isn’t available.
Unlike prescription and over-the-counter medications, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not “approve” dietary supplements for safety and efficacy. Instead, consumers are at the mercy of the manufacturer.
To play it safe, inform your physician about everything you’re taking and using. “Patients don’t realize that a lot of herbal supplements have side effects of their own ranging from GI upset to skin problems. They can also interact with other medications you’re taking,” says M. Fahad Khan, MD, MSPH, Assistant Professor of Pain Medicine, NYU Langone Medical Center. Then do your research.
Certain independent organizations offer seals of approval to products that are manufactured properly, contain the ingredients listed on the label and do not contain harmful levels of contaminants. Organizations that offer these quality tests include:
- U.S. Pharmacopeia
- NSF International
Considering an herbal extract, dietary supplement or other natural remedy?
Proceed with caution, inform your doctor, and follow these guidelines.
- Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor, pharmacist or other health professional for supplement recommendations — not only in terms of which supplements to take, but also which brands are best.
- Consider the cost. Supplement costs add up fast, particularly if you need to pop multiple pills to get the desired effects.
- Watch how much you take. Supplements are not harmless just because they don’t require a prescription. Always ask your doctor for dosing instructions before starting a supplement regimen.
- Read labels carefully. No supplement can lawfully claim to treat, cure, diagnose or prevent disease. Look for products with the USP notation, indicating that the manufacturer followed standards established by the United States Pharmacopoeia.
- Be skeptical of advertising claims. Since supplements are not regulated as closely as drugs, manufacturers can make claims that are unfounded.