If you have arthritis, you're most likely doing what you can to reduce your daily pain. That usually means taking anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or even stronger drugs such as Celebrex. But what can you do that's natural to help get your joints jumping again?

Research shows that exercise, nutrition, supplements and herbs can play beneficial roles in treating arthritis, from the most widespread form, called osteoarthritis, to rheumatoid arthritis, a less common, but more devastating, form of the disease.

Arthritis, in general, is characterized by changes in the joints that cause pain, tenderness and a limited range of motion. These changes typically occur in the hands, feet, knees, shoulders, hips and spine where the cartilage between joints and bones becomes damaged.

Cartilage is the rubbery, slippery tissue that covers the ends of bones in a joint. Healthy cartilage permits bones to glide over one another and absorb the shock of physical activity. Unhealthy cartilage, found in people with arthritis, appears to be broken down or worn away. Bones in this case tend to rub together, causing pain and inflammation in the tissue surrounding the joint—a symptom of arthritis.

Cause And Effects
What causes arthritis? "Studies seem to indicate that risk factors for osteoarthritis include being overweight, smoking, poor muscle tone that leads to instability of the joint, and previous injury or surgery to the joint," says Alan Matsumoto, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Molecular and Clinical Rheumatology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, may have a different cause. However, researchers are still learning whether genetics, diet, hormones or a combination of all three is responsible for the onset of the aches and pains of this autoimmune disease.

No matter what your symptoms, you needn't suffer. Arthritis can be managed with numerous natural supplements, nutrition regimens, herbs, enzymes and physical disciplines.

Exercise And More
At Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, "we encourage non-weight-bearing exercises that emphasize muscle tone and range of motion," says Matsumoto. "Keeping muscles in good shape helps to relieve stress on the joints and improve joint stability." Additional pain relievers include:

  • Acupuncture—An ancient Chinese technique, acupuncture may decrease pain and inflammation of joints.
  • Contrast hydrotherapy—Alternate hot and cold applications of water help stimulate blood flow and diffuse metabolic waste in the arthritic area.

Potato Heads
When it comes to arthritis, taters cater. "The most important remedy for arthritis is potato juice," says H.C.A. Vogel, PhD, author of The Nature Doctor (Keats). Potato juice is highly alkaline, which, according to Vogel, makes it an excellent treatment for uric acid conditions such as arthritis.

Common conventional nutritional approaches include:

  • Reducing pro-inflammatory foods such as refined foods, sugar and the saturated fats found in meats and dairy products;
  • Increasing omega-3 fatty acids, which may reduce inflammation. Sources include cold-water fish, nuts and seeds;
  • Utilizing vitamin C, which is essential for building healthy connective tissue;
  • Inhibiting the breakdown of cartilage with vitamin E; and
  • Taking vitamin A, zinc and selenium, antioxidants that may protect cartilage as well as help reduce inflammation.

Supplement Your Diet

  • Glucosamine sulfate (GS): Researchers believe that, when taken as a supplement, GS is absorbed into collagen, helping repair damage caused by enzymes. Analyses of studies on glucosamine suggest that 1,500 mg per day may restore some joint mobility and can reduce pain equally as well as ibuprofen (Nutrition Science News, July 2000).
  • MSM (methylsulfonylmethane): A sulfur compound that occurs naturally in foods and the body, MSM may be an effective pain reliever. At least one preliminary study suggests that taking MSM daily over a six-week period can significantly reduce the pain associated with arthritis (Journal of Anti-Aging Medicine, July 1998). Some researchers believe MSM exerts an anti-inflammatory, analgesic effect similar to that of aspirin. There is little human clinical data on MSM, and dosage levels vary by age, sex and body mass, so check with a health care practitioner for appropriate dosages (Nutritional Science News, May 1999).
  • SAMe (S-Adenosyl-methionine): SAMe is believed to stimulate cartilage production and act as a mild analgesic and anti-inflammatory (Integrative Medicine Access, 2000). More research is needed to determine how well this relatively new substance treats various forms of arthritis. For those who want to try it, start with 400­600 mg per day and gradually decrease the dose over a period of weeks or months. SAMe should be taken for at least two months to see if there is an effect.
  • Chondroitin sulfate: Another nutrient found in many joint-health products, chondroitin is often combined with glucosamine. Several recent studies have shown oral chondroitin to be effective against arthritis. Typically, 400 mg three times per day is an appropriate and therapeutic dosage (Nutrition Science News, April 2000).

Herbal Options
The following herbs and enzymes provide nutrients that are beneficial to joint health or that help reduce inflammation caused by arthritis:

  • Turmeric (Curcuma longa): Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been shown to have relatively strong anti-inflammatory effects. Avoid doses over 300 mg per day if you have liver or gallbladder problems.
  • Hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha) and bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus): These are rich in flavonoids, which have been shown to enhance the integrity of connective tissue such as cartilage.
  • Bromelain: An enzyme derived from pineapples, bromelain is another strong anti-inflammatory that has been shown to reduce joint swelling but without any side effects. For the first week or two, try 650 mg per day and drop to 450 mg per day for maintenance. Split the amount into 2­3 doses per day.

So when you're out and about, and the joint is jumping, make sure yours are too with these simple, natural remedies. Before beginning any supplements regimen, however, be sure to consult your health care practitioner.

Steve Taormina is a writer and editor for the natural health industry.