Aloe vera is one of the most commonly used herbs in alternative medicine. Known for its healing properties, it’s popular for treating small skin abrasions. You may already have a bottle of aloe vera gel in the medicine cabinet from a past sunburn. This same type of product may be applied topically to soothe aching joints.
Aloe vera is also available in whole form from the leaves of the plant. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says that oral aloe vera can cause decreased blood sugar and gastrointestinal side effects, such as diarrhea. Topical aloe vera, on the other hand, does not cause any side effects and should be safe to try for arthritis.
Boswellia, also called frankincense, is praised by alternative medicine practitioners for its anti-inflammatory capabilities. It’s derived from the gum of boswellia trees indigenous to India.
This herb is thought to work by blocking substances (leukotrienes) that attack healthy joints in autoimmune diseases such as RA. The NCCIH acknowledges promising evidence of boswellia in animal studies. But it notes a lack of human trials. Boswellia is available in tablet form and topical creams.
Cat’s claw is another anti-inflammatory herb that may reduce swelling in arthritis. This herb is from a tropical vine, and its usage dates back to Incan civilizations. Traditionally, cat’s claw is used to boost the immune system.
In recent years, the immunity powers of the herb have been tried in arthritis. The downside is that cat’s claw may overstimulate the immune system and make arthritis pain worse.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, a study showed cat’s claw can help with RA swelling. But there’s no proof that this herb can prevent further joint damage.
Like aloe vera, eucalyptus is widely available in Western markets. It’s used in oral medications, and topical oil extracts are used for a variety of conditions. Topical forms of eucalyptus leaves are used to treat arthritis pain.
The plant leaves contain tannins, which may be helpful in reducing swelling and the pain arthritis causes. Some users follow up with heat pads to maximize the effects of eucalyptus on swollen joints.
Be sure to test yourself for allergies before using topical eucalyptus. Put a small amount of the product on your forearm. If there is no reaction in 24 to 48 hours, it should be safe to use.
You may have ginger in your spice cabinet for cooking, but this herb is also a staple in many alternative medicine cabinets. The same compounds that give ginger its strong flavor also have anti-inflammatory properties.
The NCCIH says that early studies in reducing joint swelling with ginger in RA are promising. But more human trials are needed to better understand its action. In folk medicine and Chinese medicine ginger is used to increase blood circulation, which brings heat and healing properties to the affected area. Research shows promise for the use of ginger in all types of arthritis.
Green tea is one of the most popular beverages in the world, and has been used to reduce inflammation in the body. It’s possible that green tea can be used to treat arthritis inflammation in the form of beverages, tablets, or tinctures.
In a 2010 study, the NCCIH found that green tea might help people with osteoarthritis (OA) and RA. But many more studies are still needed to prove the potential benefits of green tea.
Thunder god vine is one of the oldest herbs used in Chinese medicine. Extracts from skinned roots are known for suppressing an overactive immune system. This makes thunder god vine a possible alternative treatment for autoimmune diseases such as RA. It’s best to apply directly to the skin in a topical form. Thunder god vine may work best along with conventional RA medications.
Use extreme caution with this herb, as it can be poisonous if extracts are derived from other areas of the vine. Long-term use is not recommended.
Lab studies on rats have also found this herb may slow the progression of RA. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been used in folk medicine for years. Unlike other types of herbs, the NCCIH found turmeric may work best in fighting joint pain when taken orally.
There still needs to be more studies done on the safety of turmeric, but its use is promising.
Using willow bark is one of the oldest treatments for inflammation. In fact, people during Hippocrates’ time (fifth century B.C.) chewed on willow bark to help treat inflammatory conditions.
One study reported that the herb shows promise in relieving OA-related joint pain, particularly in the knees, back, hips, and neck. This treatment is taken orally, either by tea or tablet.
Getting the right dose is crucial. An overdose can cause rashes and other forms of inflammation. Do not use willow bark if you take blood thinners or are allergic to aspirin.
Given the increased prevalence of herbal medicine, conventional doctors are more willing to assess the benefits of alternative remedies. When treating arthritis, some of these herbs may complement your current medications. But it’s important to understand that herbs can cause serious side effects.
It’s also important to know that herbs are not monitored for quality, purity, packaging, or dosage by the FDA. It is possible to have contaminated products or inactive ingredients, so buy herbal treatments from a reputable source.
Discuss all arthritis treatment options with your doctor and don’t stop taking prescribed medications unless instructed. Also, keep in mind that complementary medicine isn’t exclusive to herbal supplements. Other complementary approaches to arthritis pain relief include:
- ice or heat packs
- aerobic exercise
- tai chi
- bath and soaking therapies
- stress management like biofeedback and meditation
- a healthy diet which includes omega-3 fatty acids
- vitamin D supplements if your vitamin D levels are low
- supportive shoes
- weight management