When you live with arthritis, you might get used to going to the doctor. What if you thought of managing your arthritis as a team effort?
You know your body best, but there are plenty of other experts who can help you feel well, manage your pain and live the life you want.
More and more, complementary therapies are becoming a common addition to treatment plans for people living with arthritis. They're called "complementary" because they're just that — meant to work with and not replace the other treatments, medications or therapies recommended by your doctor.
Here's a quick guide to some popular complementary therapies for arthritis, how they work and how they could help you relax and relieve stress — and maybe even manage your symptoms, too.
"Massage can help people with arthritis feel happier and have a greater ease of movement," says Rubena Borg, a registered massage therapist (RMT) and manager at the head office of Massage Addict. "People like to feel good."
Massage therapists can help treat both acute and chronic conditions and work with a variety of patients of all ages in the treatment of illness, injury rehabilitation and disability. Plus, when you get a massage, endorphins are released and what Borg calls "that feel-good hormone" comes out.
Massage therapy can also increase circulation, help relieve pain, improve joint mobility, encourage lymphatic drainage and swelling and reduce tension, she explains. Not only does this make your body feel better, but massage may help stimulate healthy sleep and appetite, too.
"The ultimate benefit of massage is we see many of our clients returning to their activities of daily living," says Borg, whatever daily activities their own individual routine might include.
And, if their daily life includes chronic pain, some people find that massage can help with that, too.
"Physiologically, the massage therapist is breaking what's called the pain cycle," says Borg. Arthritis pain causes stress for the patient, which makes them continue to feel unwell, and can make their joints feel even more painful.
"Massage changes what happens in the brain to interrupt the pain cycle. Can it go away forever? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But your practitioner will work with you to create the plan that works best for you," says Borg.
While some people with arthritis experience symptom relief from massage therapy, we need more reliable evidence on its usefulness to improve arthritis symptoms, and it's not appropriate for everyone, so check with your healthcare team if you're unsure.
"Massage works more on the muscles, and chiropractors work more on the joints," says Borg.
Chiropractors will also work with each individual patient to develop a course of treatment that's tailored to the individual patient's needs. Using manipulation, movement, soft tissue therapy, exercise and other approaches, they can help relieve pain and improve function in those living with arthritis.
"When you have arthritis pain, every day can look different. That's why educating patients and teaching self-care is important — so you can take the steps to take care of yourself quicker, better," says Borg.
Chiropractors are trained in injury prevention strategies, and many are also happy to have a free 15-minute conversation with a potential client who might be unsure whether chiropractic is right for them.
"You own your treatment, so if there's a day you're feeling very sore, we can work with you to adapt your treatment for you. Our therapists and chiropractors also know how to read x-rays and doctor's charts, so we can work with your other practitioners to make an effective treatment plan," says Borg.
Acupuncture and other treatments
Acupuncture is a relatively low risk approach to treating symptoms of many forms of illness, including joint pain and inflammation. It involves the insertion of very thin needles into the body at specified points, which is traditionally said to support the body in restoring an internal balance.
"The principle is that acupuncture works on meridians within the muscle tissue where nerve pain comes from. It can help with nerve pain in that area and cut the pain cycle," says Borg.
Similar to massage, reflexology is a form of touch therapy that manipulates the soft tissues of the body to alleviate pain, stress and anxiety.
Focused specifically on the hands and the feet, where you have many small bones, reflexology "manipulates the joints and bones in the hands and feet following a certain routine thought to work with the body's natural energy flow," says Borg.
Plus, she says, it feels really great. "Who doesn't want a foot massage for 45 minutes?"
"If you do suffer from arthritis, you know the tension and tautness in the joints of the hands and feet. With reflexology, some find they can get better movement and more comfort."
Perhaps most importantly, Borg explains that complementary therapies work best when therapists can work together with you to understand and meet your changing needs.
"You are a person, you're not just an arthritic hand. You're a whole body who needs to get through the day and live without pain."
The cost of complementary therapies
Again, you are the ultimate expert on your body and what works best for your budget and your lifestyle. Prices for different treatments will vary depending on where you are in Canada. Many providers, like Massage Addict, set their rates based on guidance from provincial regulatory bodies. The affordability of complementary therapies will depend on your personal budget for healthcare, and the details of your provincial/territorial, private or employer insurance plan.
Looking for more help to manage your pain?
Arthritis Society Canada's Managing Chronic Pain learning guide offers strategies, resources and tips on how to minimize your pain symptoms and find relief.
For more information on a range of treatment options, Arthritis Society Canada's Complementary Therapies Guide for Arthritis is a one-stop shop for more detailed resources.
And remember, if you are not sure whether a specific treatment is right for you, talk with your healthcare team.
Produced with generous support from Massage Addict. Sole editorial control remains with Arthritis Society Canada.