Q. I have arthritis and I have read that using therapeutic mud on the painful areas might make me feel better. Is this true?
A. It may help, though the evidence, like the mud, is rather soft. A recent review of 20 studies concluded that mud pack therapy “achieves significant improvements in function, quality of life and perceived pain” in people with knee arthritis, and that it can be “an effective alternative” treatment. In the studies reviewed, mud packs ranged in temperature from 108° to 116°F and were left on knees for 15 to 30 minutes, with sessions repeated several times a week for several weeks.
Like all mud, therapeutic mud is basically a mixture of soil and water, usually with a relatively high content of dissolved minerals and clay. Its composition varies depending on where the water and soil come from, when it is collected, how it is processed, and what other ingredients, if any, are added.
Some researchers speculate that the minerals absorbed into the skin might have a beneficial effect. A more straightforward explanation for the benefit, however, is simply the heat involved, according to William Pereira, M.D., M.P.H., an occupational medicine specialist and member of our Editorial Board.
All forms of heat can temporarily provide some relief from arthritis-related aching and stiffness by dilating blood vessels and thus increasing blood flow to the area. And mud may be a particularly good way to transfer heat, says Dr. Pereira, because the high clay content allows it to retain more water and thus store more heat. Plus, the mud clings to the skin and can conform exactly to the area being treated. In contrast, hot packs lack the “cling” and usually create some air gaps between them and the skin, which may make them somewhat less effective.
Of course, the problem with mud therapy is that it can be messy, inconvenient, smelly, costly and not readily available. And as with all forms of heat treatment, you have to do it frequently, since the effect doesn’t last long.