While medication is a cornerstone and critical part of managing arthritis, home remedies and lifestyle changes can be important in your arthritis treatment plan too, says Susan Blum, MD, MPH, chronic disease specialist, assistant clinical professor in the department of preventive medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, and author of Healing Arthritis: The 3-Step Guide To Conquering Arthritis Naturally.
“You need to treat arthritis from a whole body perspective, not simply a medical one, which means incorporating all facets of wellness, including what you do at home,” she says. She knows firsthand of what she speaks, noting that she uses home remedies to help her own arthritis and autoimmune disorder. She swears by a daily meditation, green smoothies, gardening, and walking outdoors.
However, it’s important to note that home remedies should not replace medication. And you need a healthy amount of skepticism when deciding which ones to try and implement, says Don R. Martin, MD, a rheumatologist with Sentara RMH Rheumatology in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Many natural remedies aren’t backed by science or the research is very limited or weak. And even for therapies that have shown to be effective, supplements and natural therapies are not regulated the same way prescription medications are, so the purity and quality can vary widely, he adds.
How do you know whether home remedies — as part of a broader arthritis treatment plan — will work for you? Stay in close contact with your doctors and check with them before trying anything, particularly when adding a supplement, Dr. Martin says. Then do a little self-experimentation to see what helps you the most. Many of these fall under the “can’t hurt to try” category and many do have scientific research to support them.
Here, we rounded up home remedies that arthritis patients have reported to be effective for them and that doctors agreed may be worth trying. Not all of these will be right for you, but you can consider which ones may be a good fit and discuss whether you should try them with your doctor.
Keep in mind that supplements can have side effects and interact with medications, so always let your doctor know about any vitamins or supplements you’re thinking about taking.
Chili pepper lotion
Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers, isn’t just good for spicing up food, it can also help soothe arthritis symptoms, Dr. Martin says. “You can rub a capsaicin lotion or gel over symptomatic joints to help ease the pain and reduce swelling,” he explains. “You may feel a slight burning sensation but that should subside within a minute or two.” A meta-analysis (which is a study that analyzes data from multiple separate studies) published in the journal Systematic Reviews found scientific evidence going back for decades showing that capsaicin has pain-relieving properties for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
“I use a capsaicin cream called Hot Cream on my knees and back. I’ve learned to love the burn because I can feel it working. The pain is gone in minutes. Sometimes I put it on my stomach after getting my [biologic] infusions, it also helps reduce my nausea,” says rheumatoid arthritis Patricia L., from Ontario, Canada.
“One of the most important things you can do to manage inflammatory arthritis is to have a healthy gut,” Dr. Blum says. “You need a gut microbiome that is robust and diverse, which means that you have plenty of good bacteria so they can do their work protecting your body.” You can increase your body’s supply of good bacteria by incorporating more probiotic, cultured foods into your diet, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, sourdough, and kombucha, she says. Probiotic foods were listed as one of the natural remedies that had a significant effect on arthritis symptoms in a meta-analysis published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.
“I follow the anti-inflammatory protocol diet and eating probiotic foods is encouraged. Yogurt is my favorite but I have to be careful to pick one that is dairy-free and low in sugar as both of those can be considered inflammatory. I usually eat plain coconut milk yogurt with a tablespoon of whole-fruit preserves stirred in,” says psoriatic arthritis patient Allison M., from England.
Sometimes it’s hard to eat enough probiotic-containing foods to balance your gut microbiome (especially if you don’t like the taste of fermented foods) so taking a daily high-quality probiotic supplement can fill in this nutritional gap, Dr. Blum says. The key is to pick one with more than one strain of bacteria; the more diverse the better, she says.
“I take a probiotic pill every day. My biologic helps control most of my symptoms but I think the probiotics help prevent flare-ups too,” says rheumatoid arthritis patient Bethany B., from Seattle, Washington. “Although be warned, it took a couple of days of bloating and diarrhea before my body got used to them.”
Glucosamine is naturally occurring substance in your body that helps maintain the health of your cartilage, the rubbery tissue that cushions and protects your joints. It’s known as “joint juice” because it may help reduce osteoarthritis symptoms by slowing the deterioration of cartilage, lubricating joints, and improving mobility, Dr. Martin explains. Glucosamine is also commonly used with chondroitin, which is another substance that occurs naturally in the connective tissues of people and animals.
Over-the-counter supplements of glucosamine and chondroitin are not a quick fix for arthritis symptoms, however. In fact, the research on just how helpful they are is mixed. A large New England Journal of Medicine study found that “how much relief a person gets depends on how severe his or her arthritis pain is to begin with,” reports Harvard Healthbeat. “Those with mild pain did not see much benefit [compared with a placebo]. People with more severe pain experienced modest relief with the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin.”
“I take a supplement with glucosamine, chondroitin, and turmeric. I think it helps. It might be the placebo effect, but I don’t care,” says osteoarthritis patient Robert L., from Columbus, Ohio. “My wife has started taking it too and she also thinks it helps.”
Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory spice that has been shown in some studies to help reduce swelling and pain from arthritis, Dr. Martin says. A tasty way to eat turmeric is to make it into “golden milk,” a traditional hot Indian drink made from any type of milk, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, and a dash of maple syrup. While you can certainly add turmeric to food — it’s commonly used as part of Indian cooking — you likely need to take a supplement to consume enough to impact arthritis symptoms. Turmeric showed measurable improvements in arthritis symptoms in the meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Nutrition.
“The first thing I do when I wake up every day is drink a mug of warm golden milk. I make big batches and keep it in a jug in my refrigerator,” says lupus patieny Erin T., from San Francisco, California. “It’s become one of my favorite parts of my day. Holding the warm mug helps with the stiffness in my hands and the ritual feels very calming. I see the turmeric as a bonus that I hope is also helping since it’s supposed to be anti-inflammatory.”
Fish oil supplements contain anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, which may help reduce joint pain and stiffness. You can consume omega-3s from your diet — they occur naturally in fish such as salmon, in nuts and seeds, and in certain plant oils such as flaxseed — and are increasingly found in such fortified foods as eggs or yogurt. But supplements can provide much higher doses.
If you’ve tried fish oil in the past and it hasn’t helped, the issue may be that you didn’t take enough of it, Dr. Blum says. Ask your doctor about the right dose to take for you.
“I have degenerative joint disease and osteoarthritis from years of playing sports, especially [American] football. A couple of months ago, after coming across an article online, I started taking two fish oils every morning and have been waking up with much less stiffness and swelling,” says Joe H., from Boise, Idaho, who has osteoarthritis and gout.
Cannabidiol (CBD) products
CBD, a cannabinoid derived from the hemp plant — a type of cannabis plant — is becoming more and more popular among people with arthritis and other forms of chronic pain. CBD is not intoxicating like THC, another cannabinoid found in marijuana plants. CBD is available in many forms, including oral tinctures, topical lotions and creams, vape pens, capsules, and edibles. These products do appear to have some positive effects, says Elyse Rubinstein, MD, a rheumatologist at Providence St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “There aren’t many good studies to show that CBD works for arthritis, but I’ve had patients who have found it very helpful,” she says. “I haven’t seen any harm from it, so it may be worth trying.”
“The pain in my hands was so bad it would keep me awake at night and after I finally did fall asleep, I would wake up so stiff that if anyone even bumped my fingers I would cry out,” says Angie K., from Draper, Utah, who has osteoarthritis. “Because I have only one kidney, a lot of pain medications are off the table for me. On the advice of a friend, I tried a CBD lotion with a small amount of THC in it. The relief was immediate. It was the first time I felt like there was real hope for me.”
Eating a gluten-free diet may decrease signs and symptoms of inflammatory arthritis even in people who don’t have celiac disease, says Anca Askanase, MD, a rheumatologist and director of rheumatology clinical trials at Columbia University Medical Center. Though more research is needed, gluten may cause underlying inflammation in some people; eliminating it may help reduce pain and stiffness and increase mobility for some people with arthritis, she explains. Read more about what the research says on the benefits of a gluten-free diet for arthritis.
“I thought the whole gluten-free thing was just a dumb fad, but my friend convinced me to try it after being diagnosed with arthritis. My knee and elbow pain were so severe they would keep me up at night and I finally decided I was willing to try anything. Within a week of being gluten-free, my elbow pain was gone and the knee was so much better,” says Marie H., from Denver, Colorado, who has inflammatory arthritis and fibromyalgia. “Then I went on vacation and ate whatever I wanted, including stacks of waffles and bread. By the time I got home I could barely walk but it convinced me the gluten was the issue. I hate it but now I’m ‘that person’ who buys all the special gluten-free stuff and grills waiters. But my knee doesn’t hurt anymore.”
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet was the top natural recommendation from all our docs interviewed for this story and one of the most inflammatory foods is sugar — especially when eaten in excess and in processed foods. “The simplest approach to an anti-inflammatory diet is to eat very little amounts of refined sugar, which is commonly found in soda, juices, candy, ice cream, and baked goods like cakes, cookies, and white bread,” Dr. Blum says. It’s also important to look for sneaky sources of added sugars, like sugar added to things that don’t taste sweet, such as salad dressing or peanut butter. On the other hand, sugar that occurs naturally in healthy whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, is totally fine.
“Even with medication my pain is still at seven [out of ten] most days so I decided to try cutting out all sugar to see if that helped. I went full keto for a month, cutting out not just added sugars but all carbohydrates, which break down into sugar,” says reactive arthritis patient Steven P., from Los Angeles, California. “I’ve never felt better, I halved my doses on my meds, and my doctor said my bloodwork showed my disease was going into remission. It was tough to live that way, though so I started adding back in some carbs and the occasional treat. Sure enough, my joint pain came back, although not as bad as before.”
“As a hand surgeon, I deal with thumb and finger arthritis all the time,” says A. Lee Osterman, MD, professor of hand and orthopedic surgery at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and president of the Philadelphia Hand Center. This is why it’s so important to protect your hands and preserve your joint function by using tools designed to take pressure off hand joints when doing daily tasks, he says. He suggests using ergonomic assistive devices like mounted jar openers, saw handle knives instead of flat handles, keys mounted in key holders, spring loaded scissors, and wider pens. Any way you can reduce the pressure on your hand joints, even if it seems small, is worth the investment, he says.
“Losing the full use of my hands has been the most devastating part of my arthritis,” says osteoarthritis patient Angie. “I had to learn very early on not to push through the pain and to use any help I can get, whether through assistive tools or other people. I have to minimize any wear and tear on my joints.”
Wrist, hand, or finger splints
If you’re going through a bad arthritis flare-up, using “resting splints” can help quiet the active inflammation and give you some relief, Dr. Osterman says. These are devices, usually made of plastic and secured with velcro, that temporarily immobilize the joint, which allows it time to rest, he explains.
“I’m only 22, but some of my fingers are already severely bent and fused from having juvenile arthritis. Splints are helpful for the pain and for helping keep them straight so hopefully they don’t bend more,” says rheumatoid arthritis patient Emma A., from Melbourne, Australia. “My favorites are ring splints since they look like jewelry instead of a medical brace.”
Hot paraffin soak
Paraffin is a type of wax that melts at a relatively low temperature, which allows you to dip your hands, forearms, feet, and lower legs into it without getting burned. This may sound a little strange but it can really help reduce pain and swelling from arthritis, Dr. Osterman says. The wax coats your skin and as it dries it holds the heat in longer than, say, a traditional foot soak or warm compress, although those can be very helpful as well. “Therapies that use heat can help reduce stiffness and pain,” he says. Here are other treatments specifically for hand arthritis you can try as well.
“It’s really easy, I just drop a block of wax in the pot — mine looks like a little crock pot — then coat my hands, wrap them in plastic, and sit for 20 minutes. It’s really hot but not uncomfortably so,” says lupus patient Karen S., from Bozeman, Montana. “It really helps with the aching and stiffness plus I feel like I’m getting a mini spa treatment.”
Massaging the muscles around inflamed joints can help improve the circulation and decrease painful spasms, Dr. Osterman says. While a professional massage will do the trick, it’s not always practical or affordable. Instead, you can learn some simple self-massage techniques that can be done at home. Check out these tutorials for massaging joints with arthritis, including your knees, hands and feet, jaw, and neck. You can also talk to a physical therapist who specializes in arthritis to show you some techniques that will target the specific joints that are causing you pain.
“My doctor showed me some pressure points. When I massage them it does help lessen the pain,” says rheumatoid arthritis patient Gemma H., from Las Vegas, Nevada. “My husband has even learned how to massage them so he can do the ones that are hard for me to reach, like on my hips. I was worried that putting pressure on my joints would hurt, but you’re not really pressing on the joint itself but more around it. It can be painful waiting for the trigger point to relax but it’s a good pain as it helps it feel better afterward.”
“Motion is lotion” is a popular adage in the arthritis community and with good reason — one of the best things you can do for your joint pain is to keep moving, even when you’re in pain, Dr. Askanase says. Exercises that incorporate low-impact cardio — such as walking or cycling — along with gentle stretching are ideal for home workouts, she says. Consider gentle stretches and movements that borrow from yoga, Pilates, or tai chi.
“I’ve been doing tai chi, Yang style, for nearly five years and it’s helped my back pain more than anything else. It’s helped my life in a lot of ways actually,” says ankylosing spondylitis patient Mason M., from Chandler, Arizona. “I’ve improved my strength and balance. It’s also helped lessen my anxiety disorder, which had me trapped in a vicious cycle since my arthritis makes me very anxious and yet anxiety can trigger an arthritis flare.”
In addition to these home remedies, it’s important to note that many other lifestyle changes are important in managing arthritis symptoms. These include losing weight if you’re overweight, improving sleep, heat therapy and ice therapy, stress relief, water exercises, and more.