Some people with osteoarthritis (OA) find relief from natural treatments, such as physical therapy and acupuncture. Many experts recommend a combination of drug-based and natural treatments for people with OA.
OA happens when the cartilage inside a joint breaks down and wears away, leading to changes in the bone in the joint. The joints that OA most commonly affects are the hands, hips, and knees.
There is evidence that certain nonpharmacological treatments for OA are beneficial for some people. Physical therapy and lifestyle changes, for example, can help people manage their symptoms.
This article describes some common natural treatments for OA, including heat and cold therapy, supplements, and acupuncture.
Doctors tend to recommend a combination of natural and pharmacological, or drug-based, treatments. The options include physical activity, physical therapy, and pain medications.
Although there is evidence that some natural treatments are beneficial for people with OA, more research is necessary to confirm the benefits of others.
Below are some common natural treatments for OA.
Applying heat or cold to the affected joint may help reduce the pain and swelling associated with OA.
A 2021 study involving 117 people with OA in the knee found that heat therapy and cold rub gel effectively improved pain and joint function.
The Arthritis Foundation explains that applying heat to a sore joint makes the blood vessels in the area expand. This helps more blood, oxygen, and nutrients flow to inflamed tissues. Increasing circulation in this way can relax stiff muscles and joints.
The organization adds that cold treatment has the opposite effect and reduces inflammation. Due to this, it might be a better choice when a person has a flare-up.
A person can try heat therapy by:
- taking a hot shower with a water temperature of 92–100℉
- applying a warm compress, such as an electric heat pad or a moist washcloth that the person has heated in the microwave
- soaking in a warm pool or bathtub for about 20 minutes
A person can try cold therapy by:
- wrapping a bag of frozen vegetables in a thin towel and using it as a cold compress
- buying a reusable ice or gel pack
- putting a towel in the freezer for 15 minutes and then applying it to the sore area
- using a cold rub gel
Physical therapy can help a person move safely and effectively. Physical therapists tailor therapy programs to individuals’ needs, but they usually include stretches and targeted exercises.
Physical therapy can offer a person with OA the following benefits:
- helping maintain flexibility and range of motion
- strengthening the muscles to help support the damaged joint
- increasing the strength of the muscles surrounding the joint
- maintaining fitness
- helping a person perform their daily activities
The Arthritis Foundation suggests that supportive devices can protect the joints and help a person perform daily tasks. A physical therapist, occupational therapist, or orthotist can fit a person with braces or splints that help align and support the joints.
Canes and walkers can reduce the load that the body places on damaged joints while walking. This can make it easier for people with severe OA to get around.
Supportive devices include:
Doctors often recommend that people with OA adopt or maintain certain lifestyle habits, such as eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise and sleep. Controlling cholesterol levels and keeping blood pressure within the healthy range may also minimize OA symptoms. Where applicable, it can also help to quit smoking.
The authors of a 2018 review in the journal Rheumatology note that certain foods may help ease the inflammation associated with OA symptoms. Beneficial foods include oily fish, such as sardines, mackerel, and salmon, as well as avocados and walnuts, which contain omega-3 fatty acids. The researchers recommend eating one or two portions per week and taking a daily fish oil supplement.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, the evidence that supplements effectively treat OA symptoms is limited. A person should talk with a doctor before taking supplements, as these can interfere with prescribed medications.
Popular supplements for OA include:
- fish oil
- glucosamine and chondroitin
- vitamin D
- methylsulfonylmethane (MSM)
- S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe)
- Boswellia serrata
- avocado/soybean unsaponifiables (ASUs)
- willow bark
- undenatured type II collagen (UC-II)
- strongly recommend tai chi for people with knee or hip OA, as it can help people improve their strength and balance
- conditionally recommend yoga for people with knee OA
- conditionally recommend CBT for people with knee, hip, or hand OA
Acupuncture is a component of traditional Chinese medicine. It involves a qualified therapist inserting thin needles through the skin at specific sites to balance the body’s energy flow or life force. In recent years, many people have suggested that acupuncture may help ease the pain of OA.
TENS uses low voltage electric currents to treat pain.
The ACR and Arthritis Foundation
OA usually develops slowly over time, but it can develop more rapidly after an injury.
Having OA can increase the risk of complications for some people. Painful joints make it harder to exercise, which increases the risk of gaining weight. Carrying excess weight can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease.
Although there is no cure for OA, it is possible to manage the symptoms and maintain a good quality of life.
OA develops when the cartilage inside the joints breaks down. It can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling. There is no cure for OA, and the condition tends to worsen over time.
Doctors usually recommend a combination of natural and drug-based treatments.
Natural treatments for OA include physical therapy, lifestyle changes, heat and cold therapy, and supportive devices.
People may find relief from their symptoms through different approaches. Before trying a new treatment, a person may wish to talk with a doctor.