Feb. 6, 2012 -- An estimated 50 million Americans are living with arthritis, and while the pain, stiffness and joint deformities that often go along with it can be debilitating, medical experts say there are treatments that can bring relief to help sufferers live full and productive lives.
There are more than 100 different forms of arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. The most common types are osteoarthritis, caused by "wear and tear" on joints, and rheumatoid arthritis, caused when the body attacks its own tissues, leading to inflammation of the joints.
Along with commonly prescribed painkillers, surgeries and other medical interventions, there are also a number of complementary approaches specialists use that they say can decrease inflammation, reduce pain and promote overall health.
ABC News asked doctors who practice integrative medicine, a field focused on blending conventional medicine with complementary treatments, to weigh in on what options they recommend for arthritis.
A few of the approaches they discuss on the following pages work for several types of arthritis because they target inflammation, a characteristic some forms of the condition have in common. Other approaches are more targeted. But no matter what the approach, experts stress before beginning any therapy, people should consult their doctors because not every option is appropriate for everyone with arthritis.
"Certain anti-inflammatory ingredients can be incorporated into the diet, such as tumeric and ginger," said Dr. Ashwin Mehta, medical director of integrative medicine at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. "Ginger and tumeric are powerful anti-inflammatory ingredients we can recommend pretty much to anybody. They are very safe and have no potential medication interactions or complications."
There have been few clinical trials looking at the effectiveness of ginger and tumeric on inflammation, but there are some laboratory data that suggest both can be helpful.
"Studies have been done on ginger and tumeric and have shown some anti-inflammatory effects, so there is at least some basic science to suggest these might be helpful," said Dr. Joanne Jordan, director of the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.
Other food additives are considered to have anti-inflammatory properties, such as garlic, cinnamon and soy.
But while he recommends ginger and tumeric to anyone with arthritis, Mehta said before incorporating others into the diet, people should consult a physician, because certain ingredients may work better with certain symptoms. Others, he added, may interact with certain medications.
Cutting back on refined sugars can also reduce inflammation, Mehta added. That dietary tip will help with all types of arthritis.
In some people, foods that cause allergic reactions may be foods that support inflammation, so arthritics with any sensitivity to foods should avoid those foods.
Another ingredient doctors recommend is capsaicin, found in very hot peppers. It's often used in topical ointments or creams made specially for pain relief.
"It's helpful for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis when it's used as a topical remedy, although some people do eat it in the form of red, hot chili peppers," said Dr. Lawrence Taw, clinical professor at UCLA's Center for East-West Medicine. "It tends to help arthritis that is worse when it's cold, windy and damp."
Although some people may believe having arthritis means doing exercise will cause further damage to the joints and others may find it too painful to be active, doctors stress that staying active is key to managing the symptoms of arthritis.
"Physical activity and exercise are very important, especially something like yoga that would target the joints," said Mehta. "Yoga is a type of exercise that focuses on the nuts and bolts that hold everything else together, like the tendons and ligaments, and it's designed for preventive joint health."
"Exercises like yoga and tai chi incorporate physical stretching and deep breathing," Taw added. "Gentle water therapy is a very good exercise for people with arthritis since it is easy on the joints."
Stretching helps, but as with any exercise, it should never be performed to the point where it causes pain.
Exercise can also help people lose weight, which is very effective at reducing joint inflammation, he said.
"Even if you lose as little as four pounds, the stress and pressure you put on your knee joints is lessened and you really end up feeling better."
"For every person with arthritis, we recommend one nutritional or dietary change, one physical activity goal or exercise treatment and a mindfulness program of some kind," Mehta said.
Mehta explained that a benefit of mindfulness programs is that they teach people how to relax, which can be especially helpful for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
"It can take 30-plus minutes to get up out of bed in the morning because of stiffness, so there's a tendency to stay in bed and not be motivated. These programs help people get motivated and they enlist the mind to help cope with the debilitating effects," he said.
Acupuncture and Temperature Remedies
"Acupuncture has been found to be effective for osteoarthritis of the knee and hip as well as for rheumatoid arthritis, and a small study found it helps arthritis in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus," Taw said.
On its web site, the American College of Rheumatology explains that studies have found acupuncture to be effective at relieving pain related to osteoarthritis, and it may be that the needle contact with the skin is what causes the decreased pain. But they go on to say that acupuncture is safe in combination with conventional treatments.
And since symptoms of different types of arthritis may be triggered by the temperature or the weather, experts may recommend heat or cold therapy.
Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis tend to be worse in cold weather, and the pain associated with lupus can be worse in warm weather.
"Simple things like taking warm showers and using heating pads can relieve symptoms, and if the pain is worse with warm weather, we recommend cooling measures," Taw said.
If recommended by a health care provider, arthritis specialists say these and other non-conventional therapies can offer arthritis sufferers additional ways to keep their pain and inflammation in check and live free of the disabling effects of this common disorder.