Updated 14 December 2015

A natural approach to arthritis

Arthritis is an umbrella term for over 100 diseases that cause joint stiffness and debilitating pain. Here's how to find relief - the natural way.


A natural approach to arthritis

In this series of articles, we take a look at what you can do or take to prevent, alleviate or cure common ailments naturally. As many complementary and alternative medicine therapies haven't undergone rigorous testing, we base the recommendations here on the amount of evidence that is currently available (indicated with asterisks):

Natural steps for arthritis (check the evidence rating)

*** Good evidence of a health benefit
** Some evidence of a health benefit
* Traditionally used with only anecdotal evidence


Note the following in terms of your food intake:

  • Increase your consumption of essential fatty acids through fatty fish such as tuna, pilchards, sardines and salmon *
  • Avoid the nightshade vegetables (for example, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers) *
  • Avoid any allergenic foods


These nutrients have been shown to help arthritis sufferers:

  • Glucosamine ***
  • Chondroitin ***
  • B-complex vitamins **


The following herbs are often used in the treatment of arthritis:

  • Cat's claw **
  • Ginger **
  • Devil's claw **
  • Butcher's broom **
  • Nettle **


Homeopathics remedies that may help to relieve symptoms of arthritis include:

  • Belladonna *
  • Apis mellifica *
  • Bryonia *
  • Rhus tox *
  • Pulsatilla *
  • Ledum *

Alternative/complementary therapies

The most commonly used complementary approaches to arthritis are:

Please note: This natural medicine guide doesn't replace the assessment and advice of your doctor.

Arthritis is an umbrella term for over 100 diseases that cause joint stiffness and debilitating pain. Degeneration of cartilage and the symptoms of arthritis, including pain, stiffness and swelling, may be relieved with the help of complementary and alternative medicine. However, treatment by allopathic (mainstream) means are often more appropriate.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition (collection of signs and symptoms) characterised by inflammation of the peripheral joints (hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees and feet), usually on both sides of the body, potentially resulting in damage of the parts of the joints that are used in movement – the articular surfaces.

Damage is caused by persistent inflammation of the synovium (membrane lining the joint capsule) with subsequent damage of the cartilage, bone erosion and joint deformities that are the hallmark of the disease.

Many people today are sporting copper bracelets to ward off joint pain, but unfortunately there's no scientific evidence to prove that this practice works.

Natural remedies

What to do

1. Change your diet

According to natural health expert, Dr Arien van der Merwe, "A small percentage of people with osteoarthritis might be sensitive to nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant. First eliminate them for two weeks, then add them one by one to ascertain whether you're sensitive to some. Some polyunsaturated vegetable oils favour the synthesis of inflammatory prostaglandins, as do trans fatty acids found in margarine and hydrogenated vegetable oils. So, avoid them."

Van der Merwe continues, "The omega-3 fatty acids (cold water fish oil) and gamma linolenic acid (blackcurrant oil) favour the synthesis of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins and help for all forms of arthritis."

It's also important to follow a diet that's alkaline, so avoid acidic foods. This includes refined foods such as bread and sugar.

2. Exercise

There are a variety of exercises that can help for arthritis. Physiotherapy may also be useful. Affected joints can be splinted to reduce inflammation. Exercises are aimed at maintaining muscle strength and joint mobility without exacerbating the joint inflammation.

Any stress-free exercises will help arthritis sufferers. Swimming is ideal as it helps strengthen affected joints without jarring them in the process, but even gardening has been known to bring relief.

Relaxation exercises will also help with the synthesis of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins and will help for all forms of arthritis. The gentle movements of yoga provide another ideal exercise for people with arthritis. Daily yoga exercises will help relax your muscles and joints and might even reduce your reliance on painkillers. The movements can also help boost the immune system, while stimulating blood and lymph circulation.

3. Massage joints

Make your own massage ointment for aching joints by mixing four parts olive oil, eight parts camphor spirit and one part cayenne pepper.

4. Acupuncture

The ancient practice of acupuncture centres around the principle of the flow of chi or vital energy in the human body. The pain-relieving effects of acupuncture have been documented in literature and many arthritis sufferers claim they have found relief through it.

An acupuncture session involves a practitioner inserting sterile stainless steel needles into the body at specific points along the energy pathways, known as meridians. By locating the meridian that feeds energy to the affected joints and muscles, the practitioner is able to decongest the flow of energy and restore health, or at least bring relief.

5. Apply heat and cold

Arthritis sufferers may find temporary relief through the use of hot and cold packs. Heat can relieve pain by boosting circulation and easing stiffness; while ice can help a hot, swollen joint. A pack of frozen peas works very well as it can be wrapped around your leg, arm or hand.

6. Aromatherapy

To relieve inflammation: Use German chamomile and lavender.

To reduce swelling: Try juniper and cypress (note that pregnant women shouldn't use these oils).

To warm and relax muscles: Use black pepper or majoram.

Run yourself a warm bath and add two drops of lavender oil. For severe pain, add two drops of Roman chamomile or cajuput.

Make a daily massage ointment for aching joints by mixing together two drops each of juniper, black pepper and Roman chamomile. Then add five drops of lavender oil with ten teaspoons of olive or jojoba oil.

What to take

1. Herbal help

Consult your doctor or a professional herbal practitioner before using any of the herbs mentioned in the following section, especially if you're pregnant, suffer from a chronic disease or are on other medication. Also read the section on herb safety.

Ginger and fish oil favour the synthesis of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins and have been known to help treat all forms of arthritis.

Turmeric is a very spicy herb with powerful anti-inflammatory properties that may help ease sore joints.

For rheumatoid arthritis: Have one small cup of ginger, cat's claw and celery-seed herbal tea three times a day. Also add ginger and celery seeds to your meals (they go particularly well with curries and Thai foods). Alternatively, you could add one teaspoon of powdered devil's claw root to a cup of water, and then simmer the mixture for 15 minutes. Drink a cup of this tea three times a day, but avoid it if you have ulcers or if you're pregnant.

For gout: Try having buchu, nettle or coriander tea. Nettle and coriander assist the kidneys in uric-acid removal and their anti-inflammatory properties can help ease arthritic pain.

Take aloe vera capsules and juice for both arthritis and rheumatism.

Add two or three dandelion roots to one litre of water and boil the mixture in a covered pot for one hour. Drink a cup of this mixture three times a day before meals.

2. Homeopathic help

Arnica may help ease the pain, while causticum will help with the burning pain many arthritis sufferers feel after they've performed any activity or when it's cold. Rhus toxicodendron may soothe the pain experienced after resting.

Homeopath Dr Debbie Smith (M:Tech:Hom) recommends the following remedies for the following symptoms and types of arthritis:

Belladonna: Acute arthritis. Red swollen joint(s). Burning. Pains come and go suddenly. Symptoms are worse at night.

Apis mellifica: Acute arthritis. Swollen, red joints. Symptoms are worse when heat is applied and better when cold (e.g. an ice pack) is applied. There is swelling of the extremities (legs and hands) and perhaps also elsewhere in the body. The patient isn't thirsty at all.

Bryonia: The joints are swollen. Any movement makes the pain worse, and the pain is better when the joints are kept still. Constipation may accompany the condition.

Rhus tox: The pain is bad when the patient first moves, gets worse when s/he stands up from a sitting position, but gets better from continued motion. Symptoms are usually experienced first thing in the morning. Symptoms also worse in cold weather.

Pulsatilla: Swelling and pain from one joint to another. Pain is generally worse in the evening. In female patients, menstrual problems might accompany the joint pain. Pulsatilla patients tend to be timid and depressed.

Ledum: Ledum works on the small joints. The joint pains move from joint to joint in an upward direction. In other words, it will first start in the feet, move on to the hips etc. Applying very cold water or compresses to the affected area can bring relief.

3. Supplements

Some experts recommend taking B-complex vitamins, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), glucosamine and chondroitin.

This article was contributed to by natural health expert Dr Arien van der Merwe (MBChB). You can order her following books, published by Tafelberg, in English and Afrikaans online at

Health & Happiness
Geluk & Gesondheid
Herbal Remedies
Kruie met Geneeskrag

(Article reviewed by Dr Debbie Smith, October 2008)

Read more:

7 everyday things that could be damaging your joints

Arthritis and Exercise


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Arthritis expert

Professor Asgar Ali Kalla completed his MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 1975 at the University of Cape Town and his FRCP in 2003 in London. Professor Ali Kalla is the Isaac Albow Chair of Rheumatology at the University of Cape Town and also the Head of Division of Rheumatology at Groote Schuur Hospital. He has participated in a number of clinical trials for rheumatology and is active in community outreach. Prof Ali Kalla is an expert in Arthritis for Health24.

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