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Holistic Treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis: The Case for the Naturopathic Doctor

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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is just one of countless diseases and conditions that can be effectively treated by a naturopathic doctor (ND). Holistic treatment from an ND can improve pain control, reduce fatigue and manage medicinal side effects—ultimately improving your disease burden and overall quality of life.

Conventional medical doctors recommend aggressive medical treatment for people in the early stages of RA in order to preserve joint function. As a naturopathic doctor, I believe that early stage RA is extremely treatable with minimal, if any, need for an aggressive conventional treatment approach. Even in cases where someone has had RA for 20 years and their joints are permanently deformed, naturopathic medicine can still greatly serve to complement conventional treatment methods.

Naturopathic medicine addresses patient health holistically, focusing on body, mind and spirit. While conventional medical doctors are trained to treat the body system-by-system (respiratory, circulatory, etc.), training for naturopathic medicine views the patient as a complete system and focuses on empowering patients to take an active role in their health and well-being.

An ND will evaluate each patient individually and thoroughly in order to provide patient-specific therapy. Treatment may involve natural supplements, lifestyle changes and medication, among other thing. The naturopathic approach is centered on offering patients the least aggressive and most effective treatment options available, and helping patients understand and address the root causes of their illnesses, as opposed to simply addressing the symptoms as is often the case with conventional medicine.

Why consider seeing a naturopathic doctor?

What a naturopath has that conventional doctors don’t have is time. When I see a new patient, I spend an hour discussing their situation with them. On every follow-up appointment, I spend no less than 30 minutes with them. That means when I recommend certain lifestyle changes to a patient, they’re based on a fairly comprehensive understanding of what that patient’s lifestyle actually is. A conventional doctor may ask you about your diet or whether or not you exercise, but they probably don’t have time to do more than that.

For every patient with RA, the diagnostic and treatment plan should include evaluation of adrenal gland output: the stress hormone, cortisol. And RA patients should know that medical therapies, like steroids, that effectively reduce inflammation come at a price: They suppress adrenal gland function. The results of this often include severe fatigue, poor immunity and low mood states. If we can manage stress through behavioral change instead of steroids, we can help patients manage their stress and skip these negative side effects.

On top of having more time, there’s research on the cost-effectiveness of naturopathic medicine and the results are impressive. Even if your insurance doesn’t cover naturopathic medicine, in the long run, there’s evidence that you will often come out ahead by seeking holistic treatment, either instead of, or as an adjunct to conventional treatment.

It may only cost you a $20 copay to see your doctor, but with a chronic condition, you’re paying that repeatedly and you’re probably also paying additional costs for certain tests and treatments. It will all add up, especially since the conventional medical philosophy doesn’t focus on identification and treatment of underlying causes, but maintenance of disease control over the course of your life.

If you see an ND for more holistic treatment, you can learn how to manage and—when possible—reverse whatever condition you may have. Through healthy eating, exercise, restful sleep and stress management, we can help you rely less on the modern health care system, which is expensive—even with insurance.

When’s the best time to consider seeing a naturopathic doctor?

There’s no right answer to this question; it really depends on the person.

Some people choose to see a conventional medical doctor first and come to us after they’ve already been diagnosed or after they’ve already tried pharmacological or surgical intervention. Other people will come to us before they consult with a conventional doctor, because they want to explore safer and less aggressive treatment options first.

We are trained to properly diagnose conditions, so it doesn’t matter if the patient has already been diagnosed with RA or not. And ordering X-rays and other lab tests is also part of our training and educational process.

If and when a patient schedules an appointment with an ND often comes down to insurance coverage, and every state has different regulations.

Understandably, many people want to make the most of their insurance and so they go the conventional route first. Then, depending on the severity of their condition and their insurance coverage, they may opt to visit us for a second opinion and for more holistic treatment.

How to find an accredited naturopathic doctor

While I went through four years of medical school, completed a residency and received training similar to what is typical for an MD, there are people right down the street who got their naturopathic medicine degree through a home-based, online course that took 100 hours to complete. These people can advertise through professional-looking websites and the average patient, through no fault of their own, has difficulty telling the difference between. But between a properly trained and licensed naturopathic physician and a lay naturopath trained in a home-study program, the educational differences are vast.

To ensure that the naturopathic doctor you’re meeting with is a well-trained healthcare professional, you need to ask these questions: How were you trained? And where did you go to school?

Within the U.S. and Canada, there are only seven programs that are accredited within the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges. As long as their degree is from one of these schools, you’re pretty much guaranteed they’re well-trained.

In addition, there’s an online database that allows you to search by location for an ND that is a member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. This tool will also help steer you away from people practicing with an online certificate, and guide you toward those of us with years of hands-on clinical training and years of experience guiding patients back from disease to health.

Dr. Bradley Bongiovanni is an ND based in Alpharetta, Georgia. He received his degree from the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2015 Jan 10
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