Unproven Remedies for Arthritis

About unproven remedies for arthritis

Proof is necessary

Any unproven remedy--even a harmless one--can hurt you if it fails to control your arthritis.

Treatments for arthritis must show that they work and are safe. Treatments that help arthritis must show in scientific tests that they work by meeting one or more of the following goals:

  • reduce pain
  • reduce inflammation
  • keep joints moving safely
  • avoid stress damage to joints
  • keep you independent

Treatments must also show how safe they are. The benefits of a treatment in controlling arthritis should be greater than the risk of unwanted or harmful effects on your health.

"Harmless" remedies

Even an unproven remedy that is harmless can be unsafe if it causes you to stop or slow down treatments that control arthritis. Harmless remedies include treatments that do not help arthritis but are probably safe. Copper bracelets are one example.

Some unproven remedies may be unsafe or harmful in themselves. Harmful remedies have a direct negative effect on your health. For instance DMSO can cause skin irritation and diarrhea.

Harmless remedies include:

  • acupuncture
  • copper bracelets
  • mineral springs
  • many topical creams
  • gentle vibrators
  • vinegar and honey

Possibly harmful remedies include:

  • DMSO
  • lasers
  • large doses of vitamins
  • snake venom
  • drugs with hidden or unknown ingredients

Unknown remedies include:

  • bee venom
  • biofeedback
  • special diets
  • fish oil
  • vaccines
  • yucca

Much is unknown

The effects and safety of many unproven remedies are unknown. Many have not been studied. For instance, many of the special diets you read about for arthritis are unproven because their effects and safety have not been studied. Similarly, magnet therapy has not been proven to work. Some treatments are new or experimental which means they are still being studied. For example, scientists are looking at the effects of some anti-cancer drugs, such as interferon, on certain types of arthritis. They are also studying drugs used in organ transplants, such as cyclosporine. These studies weigh the benefits of new treatments in controlling arthritis against the risk of possible damage to other parts of the body.

Characteristics of arthritis

Arthritis is chronic and unpredictable

Many aspects of arthritis can encourage people to try unproven remedies.

Arthritis is chronic which means it may affect you for the rest of your life. But arthritis symptoms may come and go without warning. You may think a new remedy worked because you took it when your symptoms were going away.

Arthritis can improve after you do or take something that you believe will help. This is called the placebo effect. The power of positive thinking may cause you to feel better. This improvement usually lasts only a short time. Studies show that about one-third of the people taking a placebo improve. This happens even when people take sugar pills. Scientists think the body releases certain chemicals that promote this positive effect.

Some aspects of arthritis treatment can also encourage you to turn to unproven remedies. For instance, treatments vary for each type of arthritis. They work differently on every person. And they can change with time as the disease changes. So your doctor has to find the combination of things that works best for you. This takes time and patience. It's easy to become discouraged with this process and hope for a quick and easy answer.

Watch for False and exaggerated claims

Promoters for unproven remedies offer hope for an answer to your problems with arthritis. Ads often make false or exaggerated claims that the remedy will:

  • cure arthritis
  • be natural--no side effects
  • work for all types of arthritis
  • require no effort on your part
  • work for everyone
  • be inexpensive
  • work immediately and permanently
  • keep you from needing drugs or surgery

Suspect health fraud when you see these claims for a remedy.

It may be hard to spot an unproven remedy at first glance. The only source of information on a remedy may be what's given out by its promoters. You can sometimes spot an unproven remedy by asking what's known about its effects safety and promotion.

Is it likely to work?

Science versus science fiction

It's important that you find out what any new treatment is supposed to do for arthritis. Scientists say a treatment works when it results in an improvement in one or more of the treatment goals for arthritis.

You can use the following tip-offs to tell the difference between reports of unproven remedies and scientific studies.

Works for all types of arthritis.
here are over 100 types of arthritis and treatments vary for each kind. Scientists test a new treatment on people with a specific type of arthritis. These people are usually similar in age sex race and medical history. If you hear about a treatment that works for arthritis ask what kind of arthritis the people in the study had.

Uses case histories and testimonials
Stories about a treatment that worked for only a few people are called case histories or testimonials. They often use the person's name and picture. Sometimes they even cite stories from a large number of people. Scientists look for a treatment to show improvement in a large number of people by repeating studies and using statistical tests. Large numbers repeated studies and statistical tests show that the results are not due to chance or to the placebo effect. Ethical scientists also do not reveal the names of people involved in any test of a treatment.

Cites only one study
A single study may get results which other studies cannot repeat. A single study only suggests that a treatment may have promise. Usually a number of scientists must repeat the same study and get similar results to prove that the treatment works.

Cites a study without a control group
Scientists compare the effects of two or more treatments. One group of people gets a new treatment. They are known as the experimental group. Another group of people gets a treatment whose effects are already known or they get no treatment at all. This comparison group is called the control group. The use of control groups helps show that the results are due to the new treatment and not to some other factor.

How safe is it?

Side effects

Along with the desired benefits for arthritis treatments may also cause unwanted effects on your health. These are called side effects.

Some side effects can be very serious. You need to know how any new treatment is likely to affect you--how safe it is. You and your doctor can weigh this information to see if the benefits are worth the risk. You can use certain safety tip-offs to spot unproven remedies.

Comes without directions for use
our doctor will tell you when and how to use a new treatment. How you use a new treatment may affect how well it works or may help avoid unwanted side effects. For instance, your doctor may tell you to take your arthritis medication with a meal to avoid an upset stomach. Suspect an unproven remedy if a treatment comes without directions.

Does not list contents
You should know what's in any new medication or treatment that you take. Look for a list on the label. Some ads for a miracle drug for arthritis actually are just aspirin at a high price. Some unlabeled Chinese herbal pills as well as drugs from Mexican border clinics have been found to contain corticosteroids. These are powerful drugs for arthritis. They have many side effects and should never be used without your doctor's supervision.

Has no warnings about side effects
You should be told about any side effects. There should be warnings on the label or instructions stating who should not use the treatment.

Described as harmless or natural
Many people think that natural means harmless. Scientists look for tests to prove that a treatment is safe and also has some benefits. For example, snake venom is natural but it can be harmful.

How is it promoted?

Promotional methods

Promoters of unproven remedies use many other ways to appeal directly to people with arthritis their families and friends.

These methods include the media--television and radio news or talk shows, newspapers, and magazines. Promoters also use books, direct mail, franchised and door-to-door sales. They make oral claims. You can often spot an unproven remedy by how and where it's promoted.

Based on a secret formula
Scientists share their discoveries so that other experts in arthritis can review and question their results. A claim that only its inventor knows about a new discovery signals an unproven remedy.

Claims it cures arthritis
here are many different types of arthritis and it's unlikely that one treatment will cure them all. If there's a major new advance in treating arthritis many people will know about it including your doctor.

Available only from one source
reatments for arthritis are available from many different providers of medical care; not just a single person or company.

Promoted only in the media, books, or by mail order
Newspapers, magazines, television, and books are often good sources of information about how to deal with arthritis. But they should not be the only source. Research on new treatments will appear first in medical journals that are read by experts in arthritis care. If you have questions about a treatment you've seen or heard about check with your doctor.

Before trying an unproven remedy

Responding to pressure

Many well-meaning family members and friends can pressure you to try an unproven remedy. They often urge you to try a remedy that they heard about from another person. We all tend to believe what others tell us about their personal experience.

You can respond to such pressure by thanking the person for their concern. Suggest that you will ask your doctor about their recommendation.

Before trying an unproven remedy

  1. Check with your doctor to find out what is known about the effects and safety of the remedy.
  2. Let your doctor know what you are thinking about trying. Don't be embarrassed. Your doctor knows your medical history and can help you look carefully at how safe a remedy may be for you to try in addition to your regular treatment.
  3. Continue your regular medical care for arthritis.

Treatment plans vary

There are many effective and safe ways to control the pain and loss of motion from arthritis. Your doctor will select a plan of treatment most likely to work for you and your type of arthritis. Your care may involve more than one kind of treatment. The kinds of treatments you use may also change over time and for different types of arthritis. Treatments may involve one or more of the following:

You play the most important role in your own care. You make your own health care decisions every day. As a consumer of health care and a key member of your health care team ask questions. Judge for yourself the effects and safety of any new treatment for arthritis before you try it. You can ask your doctor for more information on any treatment for arthritis.

More information

Who can help?

Several agencies can also answer your questions or take your complaints about unproven remedies for arthritis. Your report of a problem may help keep an unsafe remedy off the market.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) office in your area (look in the phone book under U.S. Government--Dept. of Health and Human Services) or write FDA Headquarters 5600 Fishers Lane Rockville Maryland 20857 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332).

The FDA handles:

  • information on the contents and labeling of drugs medical devices and foods
  • complaints about the safety or effectiveness of drugs or devices and the safety of foods.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) handles complaints about misleading claims in advertising.

U.S. Post Office

Contact the Post Office with complaints about products or promotions sent by mail.

Contact a postal inspector through your local postmaster (look in your phone book under U.S. Government--Postal Service) or write Chief Postal Inspector United States Post Office Washington DC 20260-2112.


Some of this material may also be available in an Arthritis Foundation brochure. Contact the Washington/Alaska Chapter Helpline: (800) 542-0295. If dialing from outside of WA and AK contact the National Helpline: (800) 283-7800.

Adapted from the pamphlet originally prepared for the Arthritis Foundation by Richard Panush M.D. Cody Wasner M.D. James Harvey Young Ph.D. and Dave Bilbrey. This material is protected by copyright.