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Looking at a Variety of Ways to Treat Arthritis

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am 73 years old and suffer from arthritis.  The last thing I want to do is to have surgery or take lots of pills.  I’ve been reading about alternative medicine for pain and am not sure if it would be worthwhile or even safe?  Can you provide some information on this?   

Answer: Since I am not a physician, I cannot comment on your medical condition or recommend a therapeutic approach.  What I can share with you is some information about complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) as described by a reliable source — the National Institutes of Health.  The NIH launched a Web site on the subject with a focus on senior health, at

Let’s begin with a few definitions:

Complementary medicine is used with standard medical care. It is a complement.  An example is using acupuncture to lessen the side effects of cancer treatment.

Alternative medicine is used instead of standard medical care.  An example is treating heart disease with chelation therapy (which seeks to remove excess metals from the blood) and omitting the standard medical approach.

A related concept is integrative medicine.  This approach combines standard medical treatments with complementary and alternative practices.  An example is taking omega-3 fatty-acid supplements in addition to a prescription statin drug to reduce cholesterol.

The NIH has divided complementary and alternative medicine into four categories:

Biologically based practices: These involve adding dietary supplements and other products found in nature to one’s diet. Examples include vitamin B-12, St. John’s wort (a botanical) and acidophilus (a probiotic).

Energy medicine: This type uses energy fields to affect health.  The therapies are based on the idea that people have a subtle form of energy.  Practitioners who subscribe to energy medicine believe that illnesses result from disturbances in these subtle energies.  Treatments include magnet therapy, healing touch and Reiki. (Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction, relaxation and promoting healing, administered by “laying on hands.”)

Manipulative and body-based practices: These practices focus on the structures and systems of the body including bones and joints, soft tissues and the circulatory and lymphatic systems. Examples are massage, spinal manipulation and reflexology.  Spine manipulation is performed by physical therapists, osteopaths and chiropractors.  The goal of chiropractic medicine, in particular, is to help the body heal through alignment.  Chiropractors typically treat back and neck pain, headaches, sports injuries, strains and other conditions such as arthritis.

Mind-body medicine: This type of practice focuses on the mind-body connection.  A variety of techniques are designed to “enhance the mind’s capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms.” Examples are meditation, yoga, qi gong and imagery.

The 50+ set is not new to complementary and alternative medicine.  A 2007 CAM newsletter quoted results form an AARP survey of 1500 participants, age 50 and older.  Although this group frequently used complementary and alternative medicines, most did not discuss it with their doctors.  Patients indicated they didn’t discuss the subject because their doctor never asked and they did not know what to report.

The questions remains: Which complementary and alternative medicine practices work?  The NIH is funding extensive research to determine the safety and effectiveness of alternative therapies.  Much of the research focuses on conditions common among older adults such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Here are a few of their current findings:

  • Acupuncture can reduce nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.
  • Supplements (selenium and vitamin E) either alone or taken together did not prevent prostate cancer.
  • For those suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee, acupuncture reduced pain and improved functioning.
  • Ginkgo biloba (an herb) did not delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia.

One category of alternative medicine is “whole medical systems.” It’s composed of four types:

Traditional Chinese medicine: This healing approach, more than 2,000 years old, is based on the concept that disease is caused by a disruption in the flow of energy in our body. The balance of this flow is maintained by two forces – ying and yang. To remove blockages and restore energy and balance, acupuncture – inserting thin metal needles through the skin at specific points in the body – is used. Herbs and botanicals also are incorporated, based on an individual’s diagnosis.

Ayurvedic medicine:
This system originated in India more than 3,000 years ago. Its goal is to prevent and treat disease by balancing the body, mind and spirit. Treatment goals are to eliminate impurities, reduce symptoms and resolve physical and psychological problems. Therapies include exercise, meditation, herbs, massage, exposure to sunlight and controlled breathing.

Homeopathy: The practice originated in Europe with the goal of helping the body heal itself by using remedies coming from plants, minerals or animals. The practitioner evaluates a patient’s physical symptoms and emotional state, lifestyle and nutrition. Different people with the same symptoms may be prescribed different remedies.

Naturopathy: This approach, which also originated in Europe, is designed to help the body heal itself with an emphasis on supporting health rather than fighting disease. Naturopaths use treatments considered natural and least invasive. Their focus is on diet, lifestyle, herbs and massage to prevent disease.

With so much information it would be easy to become confused or overwhelmed. The key is to be an informed consumer. Here are some tips:

  • Talk to your health-care provider before making any decisions. That individual can tell you about your medical needs.
  • Learn the facts. Is the approach, technique or remedy safe? Is it effective? Find the results of scientific studies about the particular therapeutic modality. Because CAM research is new, some of the research has not begun, or is in process, which presents a challenge.
  • Be cautious of advertisements, advice from someone who used the approach and Web sites.
  • In referring to Web sites, evaluate the quality of the information. Note who runs the Web site, who pays for it and its purpose. Also check the source of information, how it was selected and if it is current.
  • Consult with your health-care provider and pharmacist to learn more about alternative medicines. Ask them about their safety, effectiveness and interaction with prescription and nonprescription drugs.
  • Understand that the label “natural” does not necessarily mean safe.

If you are looking for a practitioner, contact a health-care provider, a hospital, medical school, professional organization, or a regulatory agency or licensing board for the type of practitioner you want.

And then there are questions for the practitioner: Where were you trained? What are your licenses or certificates? How many visits will I need? What is the charge per visit?

As a reminder, when you fill out a patient history form at a medical office or hospital, list all over-the-counter and prescription drugs, dietary supplements and alternative and complementary medicines you are using.

The National Institutes of Health has a clearinghouse that can assist you in speaking with your health-care provider. Call 888-644- 6226 – you get to speak to a real person. You also can go to or e-mail

Thank you for your important question. Wishing you good health and relief from pain.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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