Complementary treatments and arthritis – from turmeric to cannabis oil
People use complementary medicine for many different reasons, including:
- wanting to use more natural treatments
- their symptoms aren’t fully controlled by conventional medicine.
Read more about complementary therapies which can help to ease the symptoms of arthritis, from yoga to meditation.
Are they right for me?
As with all complementary treatments, different things work for different people and it isn’t possible to predict which might be the most useful or effective.
There are some key points to consider if you’re thinking about using any complementary treatments.
- What are you hoping to achieve? Pain relief? More energy? Better sleep? Reduction in medication?
- What are the financial costs?
- Is there any evidence for their effectiveness?
Are complementary medicines safe?
Complementary medicines are relatively safe, although you should always talk to your doctor before you start any new treatment.
In specific cases they may not be recommended, for example, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or they may interact with certain medication.
A starter for five
Here we share a spotlight on the most popular complementary medicines that people call our helpline about.
It’s thought that turmeric can possibly reduce inflammation, which could help people with arthritis.
People with knee osteoarthritis who took part in a research trial reported improvements to their pain levels after taking turmeric. The evidence is limited however, as it is from just one trial. What evidence there is suggested that people only had minor side-effects after taking turmeric.
Turmeric can be bought from health food shops, pharmacies and supermarkets in the form of powder.
Glucosamine sulphate and glucosamine hydrochloride are nutritional supplements. Animal studies have found that glucosamine can both delay the breakdown of and repair damaged cartilage.
The results for the use of glucosamine for osteoarthritis are mixed and the size of the effect is modest. There’s some evidence that more recent trials and those using higher-quality methods are less likely to show a benefit.
Capsaicin is taken from chilli peppers. It works mainly by reducing Substance P, a pain transmitter in your nerves. Results from randomised controlled trials assessing its role in treating osteoarthritis suggest that it can be effective in reducing pain and tenderness in affected joints, and it has no major safety problems. Evidence for its effectiveness for fibromyalgia is related to a single trial.
Other names: Axsain®, Zacin®, chilli, pepper gel, cayenne
Capsaicin is licensed in the UK for osteoarthritis and you can get it on prescription in the form of gels, creams and plasters.
There are no major safety concerns in applying capsaicin gel/cream. A review of capsaicin applied to the skin to treat chronic pain (not specifically related to osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia) concluded that around one third of people experience a reaction around the area where the treatment is applied. It’s important to keep capsaicin away from your eyes, mouth and open wounds because it will cause irritation. There have been no reported drug interactions.
Fish oils are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, which have strong anti-inflammatory properties. Fish liver oil is also a rich source of vitamin A (a strong antioxidant) and vitamin D (which is important for maintaining healthy joints).
Evidence suggests that fish body oil can improve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Unconfirmed evidence also suggests a combination of fish body and liver oils might also be useful in the long term, particularly in reducing the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). There isn’t enough evidence for the use of fish liver oil for osteoarthritis.
Omega-3 fatty acids also play a role in lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels in your blood, so they can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke in people with inflammatory arthritis.
In the UK, dietary guidelines recommend eating two portions of fish a week, including one oily. Fish oil is considered to be well tolerated at this dose.
At the correct doses, side-effects are usually minor and uncommon.
Cannabis oil (CBD)
CBD is type of cannabinoid – a natural substance extracted from the cannabis plant and often mixed with an oil (such as coconut or hemp) to create CBD oil. It does not contain the psychoactive compound called tetrahydrocannabidiol (THC) which is associated with the feeling of being ‘high’.
Research in cannabinoids over the years suggests that they can be effective in treating certain types of chronic pain such as pain from nerve injury, but there is currently not enough evidence to support using cannabinoids in reducing musculoskeletal pain. We welcome further research to better understand its impact and are intently following developments internationally.
CBD oil can be legally bought as a food supplement in the UK from heath food shops and some pharmacies. However, CBD products are not licensed as a medicine for use in arthritis by MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority) or approved by NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) or the SMC (Scottish Medicines consortium).
We know anecdotally from some people with arthritis, that CBD has reduced their symptoms. If you’re considering using CBD to manage the pain of your arthritis, it’s important to remember it cannot replace your current medicines, and it may interact with them, so please do not stop/start taking anything without speaking to a healthcare professional.
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CBD For Rheumatoid Arthritis
Kimberly is a health and wellness writer with 8 years of experience in healthcare and a special passion for mental health awareness.
Verywell Health articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and healthcare professionals. These medical reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more.
Scott J. Zashin, MD, specializes in the treatment of rheumatologic and musculoskeletal conditions using both traditional and alternative therapies.
As cannabidiol (CBD) has grown in popularity over the years, major organizations like the Arthritis Foundation have released guidelines pertaining to its use in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). CBD is a non-psychoactive component of cannabis. The CBD in most products is extracted from hemp, a variety of cannabis that only has traces (up to 0.3%) of THC, the active compound that gets people high. Studies have shown CBD can help reduce chronic pain by impacting endocannabinoid receptor activity, which may also reduce inflammation.
CBD comes in different forms, including oil, vape, edible, and topical. Oils, vapes, and edibles are taken orally, while topical CBD lotions can be applied to the skin. CBD dosage varies depending on the form, the indication, and other treatments being used.
What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
RA is an autoimmune inflammatory disease, in which the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body and causes inflammation. RA commonly affects joints in the hands, wrists, and knees, causing the joint lining to become inflamed and damaging the tissue. This causes chronic joint pain and leads to deformity. RA can also affect other tissues throughout the body, such as the lungs, heart, and eyes.
Vera Livchak / Getty Images
Health Benefits of CBD for RA
Animal studies have suggested that CBD has pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties, but these effects have not been validated with quality studies in humans. Anecdotally, some people who have tried CBD for treatment of arthritis symptoms report noticeable pain relief, improved sleep improvement, and reduced anxiety.
The trials that have been conducted in humans have not yielded strong evidence for the use of CBD in managing arthritic pain.
- A randomized trial of topical CBD for treatment of knee osteoarthritis lasted only 12 weeks, and results were mixed.
- One of the largest reviews examining the health effects of cannabis and CBD concluded that there is substantial evidence that cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic pain in adults. There was, however, no specific conclusion regarding CBD, as definitive studies were not available.
- More recently, a new study showed that CBD can potentially help alleviate RA pain and inflammation by acting on immune cells that are attacking healthy cells in the body. It’s important to note that this study was also not conducted with human subjects.
Research in this area is ongoing.
If you are interested in trying CBD for RA pain management, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider first before using any CBD products.
Rising Popularity of CBD for RA
Based on a 2019 national survey of 2,600 people conducted by the Arthritis Foundation, 79% of respondents said they were using CBD, have used it in the past, or were considering using it to help with their arthritis pain.
Health Benefits Related to Arthritis
Given the lack of strong scientific evidence supporting the use of CBD, it is not recommended as the first choice for pain relief in RA.
If you have RA, you should not stop taking your prescribed medications that may be protecting your joints from future damage. You should discuss any changes you want to make to your medication regimen with your healthcare provider.
Additional Health Benefits
The strongest scientific evidence for effectiveness of CBD as a medical treatment is for seizure prevention in Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, which are severe childhood epilepsy disorders that typically don’t respond to antiseizure medications. Several years ago, the FDA approved the first cannabis-derived medicine for these conditions, Epidiolex, which contains CBD.
Other potential health benefits of CBD include:
- Reduce anxiety, insomnia, and depression
- Relieve cancer or cancer treatment symptoms
- Clear acne
- Slow the progress of neurologic disease like Alzheimer’s disease
Possible Side Effects
Treatment with CBD should be started slowly and under the supervision of a healthcare provider, who will oversee its effectiveness and side effects. There have been reports of mild side effects of CBD.
The most common side effects include:
It’s important to note that CBD may interact with other drugs, including some of the medications that are prescribed for the treatment of RA.
Warnings and Interactions
There are some warnings and adverse drug interactions to be aware of before beginning using CBD for management of RA-associated pain.
Do not stop taking any other treatments without consulting your healthcare provider. Additionally, CBD shouldn’t be a replacement for other therapies you are using.
Pregnant people and children should consult a healthcare provider before using CBD since there isn’t enough research on the effects of CBD on these populations. There has been concern about a possible link between inhaled cannabis and lower-birthweight babies, but it’s not clear if this applies to CBD.
Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the safety and purity of CBD products, so you cannot know for sure that the product you buy has active ingredients at the dose listed on the label. The product may contain other unknown elements. The most effective therapeutic dose of CBD for any particular medical condition has not been established.
Are CBD Products Legal?
CBD products derived from hemp are no longer considered schedule I drugs under the federal Controlled Substances Act, but they still remain in a legal gray zone. There are changes underway on federal and state levels that will ultimately clarify the laws and regulations related to CBD-based products and sales. Despite that, they’re widely available in nearly every state and online. People who want to use CBD should check their own state laws.
Studies have found moderate interactions between CBD and medications commonly prescribed for treating RA.
Interactions can occur with these medications:
CBD can increase your level of coumadin, a blood thinner.
CBD may also raise levels of other medications in your blood by the same mechanism that grapefruit juice does.
Medications that interact with grapefruit juice can potentially interact with CBD, including:
- Cholesterol medications
- High blood pressure medications
- Organ-rejection medications
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Heart medications
- Some antihistamines
Preparation and Dosage
If you’ve decided to try CBD for treating your RA pain, the next step is figuring out how much to take.
Your dosage depends on a number of factors:
- Body weight
- Medical indication
- The concentration and form of CBD that you’re taking
You will likely need to start with a low dose and find what works for you. Studies have found extreme differences in dosages, with some people using 5 milligrams (mg) and others as much as 600 mg.
Your healthcare provider may direct you to start with 20-40 mg per day and increase slowly each day until you feel the relief you’re looking for.
To ensure that you are using CBD safely and effectively for pain management, you should:
- Choose an oral treatment (rather than inhaled products) and start with a low dose
- Establish initial goals of treatment within a realistic period of time. For example, a reduction in knee pain that allows you to walk around the block within two weeks of starting treatment; later, if improved, the goals can be adjusted
- Tell your healthcare provider(s) about your planned and current CBD treatment; monitor your pain and adjust medications with your medical providers, rather than with non-medical practitioners
- When preparing to take a liquid form, be aware that the CBD extract is mixed with a carrier oil, so there are two measures to know: the amount of the liquid product to take (the dose) and the amount of CBD in each dose
If CBD alone doesn’t work and you are in a state where medical or recreational marijuana is legal, you could consider talking to your healthcare provider about taking CBD with a very low-dose THC product. Be aware that even at low levels, THC may make you feel high, resulting in cognitive, motor, and balance impairment.
If you experience any unwanted side effects when using a CBD product, immediately discontinue use and inform your healthcare provider.
What To Look For
Look for the following when choosing a CBD product:
- Look for products manufactured in the United States with ingredients grown domestically
- Choose products made by companies that follow good manufacturing practices established by the FDA for pharmaceuticals or dietary supplements or required by the state where they are manufactured
- Buy from companies that test each batch and provide a certificate of analysis from an independent lab that uses validated standardized testing methods approved by the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), or the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists (AOAC)
- Avoid companies that claim their products have disease benefits
- Be aware that marketers and people behind retail counters are not health professionals. Your healthcare provider is your best source for guidance and monitoring when using an unregulated product
A Word From Verywell
CBD may sound like an appealing option for pain relief, but do your due diligence before jumping on the bandwagon. A lot of people say CBD can help reduce pain and inflammation for those with RA, but not a lot of strong scientific data have substantiated that claim. That said, serious effects are not commonly associated with CBD use.
If this is something you are interested in, you can work with your healthcare provider to figure out whether CBD is something you can try safely. Remember that CBD should not be used as a first-line treatment for RA pain and that it’s not advisable to stop taking disease-modifying treatments for RA.