I was recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. It seems to have settled in my right elbow. The doctor wants me to start what she calls “aggressive” therapy taking new medications. The meds are called DMARD. I don’t really want to take drugs. Isn’t there a more natural way to deal with this problem?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, or long-term, inflammatory form of arthritis. RA is considered an autoimmune disease, in which your immune system attacks the tissues of your own body. In RA, the immune system mostly attacks tissues in the joints, but it can also affect other organs of your body.

This is one reason why early and aggressive therapy is now recommended for this problem. Another reason for early treatment with disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs or DMARDs is that RA can get worse over time leading to the destruction of joints. At that point, RA can greatly affect your ability to move and to do even normal daily activities.

Studies show that in some patients, symptoms associated with RA (pain, swelling, stiffness, loss of motion) can be completely corrected with early use of these disease-modifying medications. DMARDs are designed to slow or prevent the structural damage from RA. This type of drug therapy may be combined with other medications and other non-pharmaceutical (non-drug) approaches. Alternative treatment can include acupuncture, natural herbs and supplements, massage, and other forms of complementary therapy (e.g., touch therapy, Reiki, BodyTalk, myofascial release).

RA can be a frustrating and complex disease. The more you understand it, the better you can help treat your own symptoms and prevent flare-ups. Treatment that requires some effort and lifestyle changes from you. For example, daily range-of-motion and strengthening exercises may be prescribed. These will most often be designed and monitored by a physical or occupational therapist.

The therapist will also provide useful equipment and gadgets, such as canes and jar openers that can help you go about your daily business without putting too much stress on affected joints. Gentle aerobic exercise at least three times each week is advised.

Please be aware that at least half of RA patients don’t find much relief from treatment and eventually need surgery on the affected joints. A delayed diagnosis and delayed treatment for any reason increases the risk of poor results. Surgery, including total joint replacement, can be a very effective way to help you overcome the pain and loss of movement of RA. Every effort should be made to avoid surgery and especially joint replacement early in life.