Alternative and Integrative Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Jill Kunishima

"He thinks I have rheumatoid arthritis," said my Mom one beautiful day this past summer, as we left the doctor's office. Her face was calm, while her oversized t-shirt flapped like a flag in the breeze- the only thing that hinted at any type of movement on her person. I had seen my Mom suffer from arthritis for most of my life, and I had already known of how it had robbed her of her life in many ways. I never expected it to get worse, but I guess I was wrong.

According to The Arthritis Foundation, Rheumatoid arthritis is a fairly common disease, with 2.5 million Americans diagnosed. The disease, which is autoimmune, involves the "inflammation in the lining of the joints and/or other internal organs" which causes pain, stiffness, warmth, redness and swelling. It also typically affects many different joints, is often chronic, and can be a disease of flares (active) and remissions (little to no activity). The inflamed joint lining can "invade and damage bone and cartilage," while inflammatory cells release enzymes that may digest bone and cartilage. The involved joint can lose its shape and alignment, resulting in pain and loss of mobility. Typical rheumatoid arthritis treatments include various medications, including steroids, methotrexate, and various biologic agents, like Enbrel and Remicade.

A couple months have passed since that day at the doctor's, and the diagnosis is clear: my Mom has rheumatoid arthritis. She's gone to see a rheumatologist, or a doctor who specializes in rheumatoid arthritis in the past month or so, but she tells me that the visit was a bit disheartening, as he only went into the treatments that included "awful drugs like steroids," a drug with as many risks as there are benefits. After learning this, I find myself trying to do my part by learning more about the disease and its treatments. Fortunately, as I talk to more people and specialists, and sift through information, I start noticing a trend, a trend that is not only visible in the material on rheumatoid arthritis, but one that has taken the United States by storm. This trend is what I will refer to as alternative and integrative healing methods.

Alternative and integrative healing methods are basically methods that differ from orthodox western style medicine. Many are holistic and emphasize the mind-body connection, as well as the use of substances like herbs. In the past decade, there has been a tremendous influx of alternative and integrative healing methods in western cultures like ours, even though most of these methods are, in fact, very old.

Jeanne Dowell, an instructor of Iyengar Yoga, knows how horrible arthritis can be, as she has a certain strain of arthritis in her fingers. Aside from that, however, she's in great health, and she attributes that to her consistent practice of yoga and healthy eating habits. "My doctor told me that I was doing the very best thing I could do." "Yoga is sort of an age-reversing type of exercise. As we get older, we start drying up more, but yoga helps get that fluidity back." For rheumatoid arthritis patients "inflamed joints cannot be worked on directly, but there is evidence that yoga does help people diagnosed with the disease," says Dowell. The Iyengar method focuses on alignment and precision, which also really tends to help those with rheumatoid arthritis. "If anything, yoga changes your mindset, and releases stress, which can only help."

"When you clear out the bad stuff, you get the fluids running more, and you create space, which all leads to better range of motion, and consequently less pain," says Marla Mundis, an instructor of Tai Chi and massage. While much of her sentiment echoes Dowell's, she believes that both Tai Chi and massage, separately and in conjunction, can also provide some pain relief when used correctly, and that in addition to the exercise, "human touch is a very important and powerful thing." Various rheumatologists acknowledge the benefits of Tai Chi as well. Tai Chi, which takes the joints gently through their range of motion and emphasizes on breathing and inner stillness, can be very beneficial for people with arthritis, according to Paul Lam, MD, a Sydney-based family practitioner and Tai Chi master who designed an arthritis program for The Arthritis Foundation, and began doing Tai Chi nearly thirty years ago for his own osteoarthritis.

Acupuncture is another alternative treatment that seems to help those with rheumatoid arthritis. Acupuncture is the insertion of very fine needles on the body's surface, in order to influence physiological functioning of the body. My Mom, for one, has taken to this type of medicine. "It's expensive, but it makes a great difference in how I feel on a day to day, or week to week basis," she said. Dr. Markenson, a doctor who often speaks on, believes that "acupuncture has a very important role in pain control" but "not to decrease inflammation." It, however, "should not be used as a sole therapy or exclusive of your physician."

Dr. Robert Anderson, a professor who has also taught classes on Alternative Medicine, instructs all to be cautious when dealing with alternative therapies. "Chiropractic work can sound great, but could actually be very detrimental for someone with rheumatoid arthritis." As both a "traditional" doctor and a chiropractor, he knows this all too well. He believes that integrating the two types of medicine would most likely give you the best results, but "you have to be very careful." Herbal supplements are another example of something that sounds like "the panacea to all ailments, but in conjunction with other medications they may not work so well, or may, as with chiropractic work, even further the damage." In addition, "lots of the alternative remedies have not been tested as well as orthodox western medicine, so be wary." For rheumatoid arthritis, he recommends Tai Chi, certain types of Yoga, acupuncture, meditation, prayer, a healthy diet and lots of friends and family nearby. "Nothing helps more than family, friends, and community," he reminds.

My Mom sounds almost surprised with my findings. Just the hint of relief I hear in her voice motivates me to continue on with my investigation. Unfortunately, this phone call is a not-so-happy one. The pain has started moving into her toes, and she wearily believes that conventional medicine will have to be used relatively soon. "It's one of those lose-lose- situations…" she sighs "but I'd rather have mobility and weight gain or any other side effects than to have no use of my limbs." She then promises me that she'll look into more Yoga and Tai Chi classes and says goodbye. It's so hard to watch my Mom go through this, but whatever her decision is, at least we know there are options available to her, options that may be the key to her well-being someday.