Osteoarthritis

Frequently Asked Questions

13. What are some non-drug and alternative ways to relieve arthritis pain?

People with osteoarthritis may find many non-drug ways to relieve pain. Below are some examples.

Heat and cold. Heat or cold (or a combination of the two) can be useful for joint pain. Heat can be applied in a number of different ways -- with warm towels, hot packs, or a warm bath or shower -- to increase blood flow and ease pain and stiffness. In some cases, cold packs (bags of ice or frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel), which reduce inflammation, can relieve pain or numb the sore area. (Check with a doctor or physical therapist to find out if heat or cold is the best treatment.)

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). TENS is a technique that uses a small electronic device to direct mild electric pulses to nerve endings that lie beneath the skin in the painful area. TENS may relieve some arthritis pain. It seems to work by blocking pain messages to the brain and by modifying pain perception.

Massage. In this pain-relief approach, a massage therapist will lightly stroke and/or knead the painful muscles. This may increase blood flow and bring warmth to a stressed area. However, arthritis-stressed joints are sensitive, so the therapist must be familiar with the problems of the disease.

Acupuncture. Some people have found pain relief using acupuncture, a practice in which fine needles are inserted by a licensed acupuncture therapist at specific points on the skin. Scientists think the needles stimulate the release of natural, pain-relieving chemicals produced by the nervous system. A large study supported by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) revealed that acupuncture relieves pain and improves function in knee osteoarthritis, and it serves as an effective complement to standard care.

Nutritional supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, have been reported to improve the symptoms of people with osteoarthritis, as have certain vitamins. Additional studies have been carried out to further evaluate these claims. It is unknown whether they might change the course of disease.

Folk remedies include the wearing of copper bracelets, following special diets, and rubbing WD-40 on joints to “lubricate” them. Although these practices may or may not be harmful, no scientific research to date shows that they are helpful in treating osteoarthritis. They can also be expensive, and using them may cause people to delay or even abandon useful medical treatment.

For general information about alternative therapies, see the Complementary Health Approaches topic.