Some people with arthritis find that wearing copper bracelets or copper insoles improves their symptoms of joint pain and stiffness. It doesn’t work for everyone, and may depend on whether or not you are copper deficient. The recommended daily amount for copper is 1mg in the EU/UK, while in the US the Daily Value (DV) was recently reduced from 2mg to 0.9 mg. Average dietary intakes are estimated at around 1mg per day for women and 1.2mg per day for men. As an average is only an average, around half will be getting more but half will be getting less.
How copper reduces arthritis pain
Copper was used in the nineteenth century by French physicians to treat arthritis, in the form of a poultice made from lard plus copper acetate, and tablets containing 10 mg copper acetate.
Then, in 1939, a German Dr Werner Hangarter noted that Finnish copper miners did not develop arthritis as long as they continued to work in the mining industry, whereas rheumatic diseases were widespread in other industrial workers. This led to the development of a mixture of copper chloride and sodium salicylate (known as copper aspirinate) which, in clinical trials, was successful in treating rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, neck and back pain, and sciatica.
The way in which copper might reduce joint pain is not fully understood. Copper mainly acts as a catalyst to ensure enzyme reactions run smoothly. One of the copper metalloenzymes (copper-zinc superoxide dismutase) has powerful antioxidant actions to suppress inflammation. Activity of this enzyme is reduced when diets are low in copper, and this has been associated with connective tissue problems affecting muscles, blood vessels, joints and bone.
Copper is also involved in the synthesis of collagen – a major structural protein in joints, and is especially important for maintaining the elasticity of joint cartilage. Copper may also have a direct analgesic effect, as part of the mechanism in which aspirin suppresses pain and inflammation involves copper.
Copper absorption through the skin
When you wear a copper bracelet or ring, the metal interacts with sweat and sulfur compounds in the atmosphere to cause a slight green discoloration of your skin. Trace amounts of these copper deposits are absorbed through the skin and can help to correct any nutritional deficiency.
Over the course of a year, copper is absorbed from copper jewelry at an estimated rate of between 100mg and 150mg of copper annually. In one study, a pair of copper bracelets worn around the ankles lost 80 mg in weight within 50 days, while copper bracelets worn around the wrist lost 90 mg copper in that time.
Copper bracelets for arthritis
An early study (1975) involving 300 people with arthritis compared the effects of wearing a real copper bracelet against a sham bracelet made from aluminium but painted to look like copper. Those wearing the real copper bracelets reported positive benefits against their arthritis symptoms in most cases. Interestingly, those who had previously used an authentic copper bracelet, but were assigned to wear the sham bracelet, experienced a significant deterioration in their arthritis symptoms.
However, a more recent study (2009) involving 42 people with osteoarthritis, which used a small copper bracelet as a ‘placebo’ when testing magnetic therapy straps, reported no significant effects against pain or stiffness. The four devices (one of which was copper) were worn sequentially for a minimum of eight hours a day, for four weeks, over a 16-week period. Participants reported less sensory pain after wearing a standard magnetic wrist strap, than when wearing the other devices, and the conclusion was that copper bracelets were generally ineffective for managing pain, stiffness and physical function in osteoarthritis. Yet the ‘placebo’ copper bracelet worn on the wrist only weighed 13g – they must have been tiny! The researchers did admit that the lack of effect could be due to the short time of just four weeks in which each device was tested, and that this short duration was likely to affect the copper bracelet treatment most of all. So, although this trial is often cited as proving that copper treatment does not work, I’m not convinced it was that robust.
Copper insoles for rheumatoid arthritis
A copper insole was developed by a podiatrist to boost copper absorption across the skin by interacting with acidic sweat on the soles of the feet. The copper insoles, known as Copper Heelers, are said to significantly reduce joint pain due to arthritis as well as improving circulation in the lower limbs, although they haven’t been subjected to clinical trials.
One woman I interviewed was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 40 after experiencing pain in every joint of her body. The stiffness and pain worsened until she couldn’t lift her baby out of his cot and she became virtually housebound, struggling to walk. A rheumatologist prescribed medication to which she didn’t respond. She decided to try copper insoles, and also changed her diet to cut out dairy, caffeine, alcohol and wheat. After one month, she noticed a significant improvement in her flexibility and joint pain. After three months, she was completely pain-free and back to her normal self. Since then, she has run two half marathons and when I spoke to her was entering the London Marathon.
Copper bracelets for rheumatoid arthritis
A study involving 65 people with rheumatoid arthritis tested magnetic wraps, against a copper bracelet (again being used as inactive placebo) in which each device was worn on its own, for a minimum of 12 hours per day, over five weeks. No statistically significant effects were seen on pain, inflammation, physical function, disease activity, or medication use, and the researchers concluded that wearing magnetic devices had no meaningful therapeutic effect beyond that of the copper bracelet placebo. The weight of the copper bracelet was not mentioned in this study, but as the lead researcher was the same as for the osteoarthritis trial mentioned above, it is likely that the same lightweight (13g) ‘placebo’ copper bracelet was used. Again, wearing such as tiny copper bracelet for five weeks is too short a time to assess the full benefits.
Another interpretation, of course, is that copper bracelets are as effective as magnetic therapy, and you might like to increase the benefit by wearing a copper bracelet that incorporates magnets, too.
Dietary sources of copper
Copper is involved in vitamin C metabolism, and when vitamin C intakes are optimal, copper deficiency can quickly occur if dietary intakes are limited.
Food sources of copper include shellfish (prawns, oysters, lobster, crab), nuts, pulses, liver, whole-grain cereals, avocado, artichokes, radishes, garlic, mushrooms and green leaves grown in copper-rich soils. However, up to 70% dietary copper remains unabsorbed as it becomes bound to other bowel contents such as sugars, sweeteners and refined flour.
Have you tried wearing a copper bracelet?
Copper bracelets and insoles will not work for everyone – their effectiveness will largely depend on whether or not you are copper deficient. As copper jewelry is attractive, however, it is certainly worth trying but please wear the bracelet for at least 12 weeks to assess the benefits. If you have tried copper therapy, please share your experience via the comments below. Thanks.
NB If wearing copper jewellery, it is a good idea to ensure you obtain at least 15 mg of zinc per day from your diet, or supplements, as adequate levels of zinc are required for copper to work properly. The ideal dietary ratio of copper to zinc is 1:10.
Image credits: pixabay; Luis nunes alberto/wikimedia