Do complementary therapies for arthritis really work?

Do you suffer from knee pain? Swollen joints? Stiffness in your hip? If so, you’re not alone. There are currently 10 million people living with arthritis in the UK1. Whether you have osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis, it’s almost certain that you’ll want pain relief and fast.

The pain from these chronic conditions can take a toll on your physical and mental health. So it’s no wonder that arthritis sufferers are turning to complementary and alternative therapies2. But do complementary therapies actually help with joint pain?

The 3 most common types of arthritis


There are actually over 100 different types of arthritis. However, the three most common are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic.


The most common of all, osteoarthritis occurs from general ‘wear and tear’ and usually affects the knees, hips, feet and spine. Pain occurs from the inflammation and eventual breakdown of cartilage in the joints.

Complementary therapies may be an attractive option for some people as they offer a more natural approach with fewer side effects.

Rheumatoid arthritis

As an autoimmune disease that usually affects the hands, feet, wrists, elbows, knees and ankles, rheumatoid arthritis is when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the joints. The inflammation created causes the tissue inside the joints to thicken, which leads to joint pain and swelling. Cartilage can become damaged if the inflammation goes unchecked or isn’t controlled.

Psoriatic arthritis

Affecting those with psoriasis, people with psoriatic arthritis have both inflammation of the skin and joints. Psoriasis itself causes red, raised patches with white scales to form on the skin. However, psoriatic arthritis can develop as a complication of psoriasis.

The difference between conventional medicine and complementary therapies


Conventional medicine is focused on understanding your condition and treating the symptoms with drugs or surgery. However, some people prefer a more holistic approach by opting for complementary therapies which can be used alongside conventional medical treatment. This is different to alternative therapies which are used instead of conventional medicine.

Complementary therapies may be an attractive option for some people as they offer a more natural approach with fewer side effects. They can also help you to feel more in control of your condition and gain more psychological comfort3.

It’s always important to talk to your doctor before undergoing any complementary therapy. They can advise on what’s right for you as some treatments or medication may react with complementary therapies.

Available complementary therapies


Originating from Ancient Chinese medicine, acupuncture involves inserting very fine needles into key points of the body to help relieve pain. The needles seem to alleviate discomfort by diverting your pain and stimulating pain-relieving endorphins.

Acupuncture can be a great way to enhance existing treatment and it has minimal side effects. One study found that acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is a reasonable option for referral4. To get the most out of your treatment, it’s best to undergo a course of acupuncture which is likely to be more effective in longer lasting pain relief than a single treatment5.

Lavender oil


Another potentially beneficial option is aromatherapy. In fact, a lot of people experiencing chronic pain say that an aromatherapy massage gives them relief for several weeks6. Using essential oils from plants, the oils can be inhaled, used in the bath or massaged into the skin.

There are many different oils available with different uses. Frankincense oil may be used for joint pain as it can inhibit inflammation and prevent cartilage tissue from breaking down7. However, if you’re suffering from knee osteoarthritis, an aromatherapy massage with lavender oil might be effective in relieving your pain8. Ginger, which has been traditionally used for its anti-inflammatory remedies, could also be a possible alternative for short term relief of pain9.


Not only is a massage soothing and relaxing, but regular massages by a qualified therapist can help to reduce joint pain, stiffness and range of motion. One study found that Swedish massage therapy for one hour, once a week, can reduce the intensity of pain for osteoarthritis of the knee10. It can also be useful for decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression that might be associated with joint pain.


It’s been claimed that reflexology could be as effective as painkillers for arthritis11. Reflexology is centred on applying pressure to different parts of the body, usually the hands and feet, that are thought to relate to specific areas of the body. A study by the Life Science Journal discovered that hands and feet reflexology was effective in reducing pain, improving quality of life and total health status on rheumatoid arthritis patients. These positive indications were unaffected by age or duration of condition12.



Combining breathing techniques with different postures, yoga has long been looked to for its array of benefits. Not only does it promote a more positive physical and mental well-being, but it can be particularly helpful for arthritis sufferers. Yoga can reduce pain, increase strength and improve flexibility13. However, some yoga positions are not suitable for certain conditions. It’s always a good idea to explain your situation to your yoga teacher, or find a teacher who understands arthritis.

You can find out more about complementary therapies here

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