If you’re living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you know that the symptoms often flare up at inconvenient times. It can be difficult to do everyday activities when you’re dealing with the pain, stiffness, and other symptoms that come with the disease. Fortunately, there are lifestyle changes you can make and some home remedies you can try to help minimize your symptoms throughout the day.
What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease that affects more than 1.3 million Americans. The immune system makes antibodies that attack bacteria and viruses to fight infection. But when you have RA, your immune system mistakenly sends those antibodies to the healthy lining of your joints and attacks the tissue surrounding the joints. As a result, the thin layer of cells called synovium that covers your joints becomes sore and inflamed.
RA primarily affects the joints, especially joints in the hands, wrists, and knees. In severe cases, RA can attack internal organs like the lungs, heart, and kidneys.
The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown. However, evidence has shown that autoimmune conditions run in families. There may be certain genes you are born with that make you more likely to get RA. In addition to genetics, certain hormones and lifestyle choices can increase your risk of RA.
What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?
The main symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and inflammation. The small joints in the hands and feet are usually the first to be affected. RA usually affects both sides of the body at the same time and in the same way. But in some cases, it only affects one side of the body or can affect one side more than the other. Many people with RA often experience joint stiffness that is worse in the morning or after a period of inactivity.
Other symptoms of RA include fatigue or tiredness, fever, weakness, and weight loss.
What are some easy ways to reduce RA symptoms throughout the day?
Although there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, there are certain medications, lifestyle medications, and natural treatments you can do regularly to help reduce RA symptoms and make daily activities more manageable.
Medications are often the first line of treatment for RA. The goal of these medications is to help stop rheumatoid arthritis from getting worse, spreading to other areas of the body, and reducing the risk of further complications.
Many patients with rheumatoid arthritis are given disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) as part of the initial treatment. DMARDs block the effects of the chemicals your immune system releases when it attacks your joints and can help slow the progression of RA while improving your quality of life. Commonly used DMARDs include methotrexate, leflunomide, hydroxychloroquine, and sulfasalazine. While taking DMARDs, you may have longer periods of no RA symptoms, or your flare-ups may be less painful. DMARDs can also reduce the amount of time it takes for your joints to loosen up in the morning.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help relieve pain and inflammation from RA. However, they do not slow the progression of the disease like DMARDs, although they can be taken with DMARDs and other medications to prevent further joint damage. NSAIDs work by blocking enzymes in the body that help make prostaglandins, fatty acids that contribute to pain and inflammation. Some NSAIDs can be bought over the counter, while stronger options are available with a prescription.
Corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, are anti-inflammatory steroids that can help reduce pain and inflammation and slow joint damage. Corticosteroids closely resemble the hormone cortisol, which is the body’s main stress hormone. One way rheumatologists might have you use corticosteroids to minimize your RA symptoms is to start with a high dose, followed by a decreasing dose to eventually stop the medication. This is called a “burst and taper” approach and helps reduce steroidal side effects.
Because prolonged use of steroids can be harmful, RA guidelines of the American College of Rheumatology advises doctors to use the lowest amount possible for the shortest amount of time.
Because RA affects the joints, ligaments, and muscles, there are some lifestyle changes you can make to help minimize inflammation, reduce pain and prevent joint damage.
Taking breaks throughout the day can help protect your joints and preserve energy. If you’re writing with a pen and paper, release your grip every 15 minutes. When driving for extended periods, you may want to pull over every 30 minutes or so to stretch and give your joints a break. When you’re watching TV or working on the computer, try to get up every 30 minutes and walk around. If you go too long without taking breaks, you may get more pain and stiffness because the joints have not had time to relax.
Eating a balanced and nutritious diet can help lower inflammation in your body. Although there isn’t an exact “RA diet,” the Mediterranean diet—which features fruits, vegetables, fish, and healthy fats from olive oil—can be particularly beneficial. These foods, along with whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins should make up the majority of your diet because they can help lower inflammation. Cut down on sugar, saturated and trans fats, and alcohol, which can increase inflammation.
Certain supplements, such as turmeric/curcumin and omega-3 fish oils, can help ease the pain and morning stiffness from RA. Omega-3s, for example, have anti-inflammatory properties that can help with tender joints and reduce the need for NSAIDs. Curcumin and turmeric also have anti-inflammatory properties, and many curcumin supplements contain pepper to aid absorption. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements because they may interfere with other medications.
Although it might seem like the last thing you want to do if you are experiencing pain or stiffness from RA, physical activity can help ease those symptoms. Low-impact exercises like yoga or Tai Chi can be beneficial for relieving RA symptoms and are easy on the joints. Other exercises you may want to try are aerobics, such as swimming or walking, and strength training. Talk to your doctor before starting any kind of exercise routine. If you are thinking about taking a class, look for an instructor who has experience working with RA patients.
Along with physical activity, stretching can help relieve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Care found that there was significant pain reduction for patients with RA who engaged in 30 minutes of stretching three times a week for one month. Stretching can also help prevent your muscles from shortening and losing their full range of motion. Because some stretches may increase the amount of stress on the joints and cause more damage, it is important to talk to your doctor about the most effective stretches to relieve your symptoms.
Meditation can help take your mind off your RA and relieve any stress you may feel from your diagnosis. You don’t have to meditate for hours on end to get the benefits either. Just a few minutes a day can make a significant difference. It may be difficult at first, so be gentle with yourself. If your mind starts to wander, bring your attention back to your breath and keep going. You’ll get better at pushing away intrusive thoughts the more you practice. If you’re having trouble meditating on your own, you can use meditation apps and timers, or try guided meditation audios and videos.
Pain, fatigue, and poor sleep can make it difficult for you to do the things you want and need to do. Thinking about all the different tasks you need to get done, in addition to staying on top of doctor’s appointments, bills, and other daily living activities can feel overwhelming. This stress can set off the immune system’s inflammatory response. The longer you are exposed to stress, the more damage inflammation can do to your joints. Managing RA can be stressful, too so finding ways to reduce stress can help reduce RA flare-ups. Doing the things you love, such as spending time with family and friends, exercising, or reading a book, can help reduce stress and take your mind off of your RA.
While you will need to keep up with any medications you are currently prescribed by your doctor, some natural treatments you can do at home can help relieve the pain and stiffness from RA.
Using an ice pack can help ease swelling and inflammation. Cold compresses or ice packs reduce swelling by constricting blood vessels and reducing blood flow. It can also help numb deep pain after an initial period of discomfort. You only need to apply an ice pack or cold compress for about 15 minutes, and then take a break of at least double the amount of time (30 minutes) before reapplying.
The heat helps relax the muscle and can encourage blood flow by dilating the blood vessels and stimulating circulation. Heat treatment can be dry or moist, and there are a couple of different options for heat treatments, such as a warm, damp towel, a microwaveable hot pack, or a heating pad. Make sure to limit the use of heating pads to 10 to 20 minutes, and only use them once to three times a day. You can also take a hot shower and let the hot water hit the parts of your body that are hurting. To prevent burns, be careful not to let the temperature get too hot.
Get relief from your pain (and some relaxation) by getting a massage. Research has shown that patients reported relief from pain and stiffness with four once-a-week moderate pressure massages on arms affected by RA, followed by daily self-massage at home. Moderate hip massage can help reduce pain as well as sleep disturbances. There are two types of massage are best for RA relief – moderate-pressure massage and myofascial release. Be sure to talk to your massage therapist about these types of massage and always mention any sore areas that you don’t want them to work on.
Some topical creams and gels can help ease joint or muscle pain. Some of these products may contain capsaicin, which is the ingredient in chili peppers that makes them hot. When it is applied to the skin, it temporarily desensitizes the area after an initial warm tingling sensation. Other topical creams, such as Tiger Balm, might include ingredients such as menthol, camphor, or eucalyptus oil to create a cooling or warming sensation over the painful joint or muscle.
Certain scents, such as lavender and chamomile, can help ease stress and put you in a more relaxed mood. Some studies have shown that aromatherapy can help treat pain when used in conjunction with conventional treatments. Some ways you can incorporate them into your daily routine are with scented lotions or a diffuser to use with essential oils. Make sure you buy real or natural essential oils and not artificial ones for the best results.
Get the help you need
Dealing with the symptoms of RA can make daily living hard. Thankfully, there are several approaches and methods to help reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life. If you find your symptoms are still impacting your daily living, know you are not alone. There are thousands of others at PatientsLikeMe with rheumatoid arthritis who are sharing their experience with the condition. Join them today to learn about more ways to help manage your illness.