Whether you’re looking for new treatments, want to enhance your current prescription drug regimen, or are simply curious about your options, natural supplements are worth your consideration.

“Supplements” usually refers to the vitamins, minerals, animal extracts, enzymes, and herbs that can be used to supplement the nutrition in your diet and the medicines prescribed by your doctor. Used for centuries to ease aches and pains associated with rheumatic diseases as well as a multitude of other related and unrelated conditions, many supplements have a proven track record, says James McKoy, MD, chief of rheumatology and director of pain management services at Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii. “For mild rheumatoid arthritis [RA] and osteoarthritis [OA], appropriate supplements in appropriate doses can be of great help. And for moderate RA and OA, supplements may be able to keep you from having to use very high doses of traditional medicines and decrease your overall cost of treatment as well as the potential side effects,” he says.

Supplements can be appealing because, let’s face it, most of us would rather not take prescription or over-the-counter drugs. We need them and they help us, yet they’re a reminder that we are not well, and many have potentially unpleasant side effects. So we turn to natural remedies, hoping they will somehow tap into a reservoir of ancient wisdom to help ease our maladies in the way nature intended. Some “natural remedies” – supplements that are readily available on grocery store shelves – really can make a difference in the way we feel.

But many do not live up to their claims. It is important to know what really works, what is just a waste of your money, and what could actually be harmful.

Supplements are increasingly available to people with chronic health problems such as arthritis, and people are buying them record numbers.

Herbs, supplements and other such “natural” remedies have a tremendous attraction for people with arthritis who are frustrated with the solutions offered by conventional medicine. Although most people realize there is no magic bullet to cure arthritis, they hope their pain and other symptoms will be better controlled if they try a supplement or extract in addition to their doctor-prescribed medication.

Supplements offer the convenience of popping a pill or potion along with the premise that the natural ingredients won’t harm you. But “natural” doesn’t always mean “safe.” Some people think that supplements – especially herbs – are safe because they are natural alternatives to the chemicals used in prescription drugs. The fact is, herbs are chemicals. And anything that’s strong enough to help may also be strong enough to hurt.

That doesn’t mean all supplements are bad. In fact, certain types of extracts and supplements have been shown to be useful in treating various types of arthritis. For example, the omega-3 fatty acids found in the oils from certain fish have been shown to modify inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis when taken in large quantities. Unfortunately, the effect may only be sustained for a few months. Another study showed that oil extracted from the borage plant had some properties similar to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), without gastrointestinal side effects. However, the best dosages and possible long-term side effects of these supplements have yet to be determined.