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27 Tips for Coping With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Living with rheumatoid arthritis

About 1.3 million people in the U.S. have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a serious autoimmune disease that wreaks havoc on the joints (and other parts of the body). Here are some tips for coping with RA.

Protect your joints

You should always be thinking about your joints, even those that are currently symptom-free. And remember, no task is too small. Instead of lifting a heavy pot, slide it across the counter; use a shoulder to open a door rather than your hand; and hold books in the palm of your hands, not with your fingers.

Eat omega-3s

Several studies suggest that people with RA may benefit from fish oil supplements, which contain inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. They’re especially valuable to RA patients, who are said to have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

Exercise can give you more energy, improve your mood, and, most importantly, keep joint pain at bay if you feel physically capable of working out. Walking, cycling, swimming, and light weight training done three times a week for 30 minutes are options, but check with your doctor to make sure they are safe, and know your limits. Don’t exercise when joints are inflamed; take a break if you feel pain; and alternate positions periodically when performing tasks such as gardening or cooking.

Don’t smoke

Smoking is a lifestyle factor that is known to increase the risk of RA. It is also associated with more severe symptoms and joint damage in those who have been diagnosed with the condition.

Consider counseling

Cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy that helps people identify problems in the way they think and act and encourages them to change their behavior, can be helpful if you have RA, especially if you are suffering from depression. Counseling can also help you cope with the other stresses and strains of chronic illness.

Try yoga

Yoga’s emphasis on stretching, whole-body well-being, and group involvement makes the practice especially relevant to some arthritis sufferers. Although the scientific evidence of arthritis-specific benefits is limited, it’s still recommended by the Arthritis Foundation.

Stretch it out

Assuming you are pain-free, you should try to stretch all of your joints each day. A physical therapist or other physician can help tailor a stretching program for your needs. People with RA tend to feel stiffer in the morning than at other times of the day, so take a shower to warm up your joints, and then stretch to help loosen you up for the rest of the day.

Don’t worry about alcohol

If you have RA, it seems fine to drink in moderation. Research suggests that people with RA who drink alcohol may have less severe symptoms than those who do not.

Train your mind and body

Mind-body therapies help you use your mind to make your body feel better. These approaches can include mindfulness meditation, biofeedback, breathing exercises, and guided relaxation. Certain types of exercise—such as yoga, qigong, and tai chi—also encourage you to focus your mind in ways that can help you cope with pain, and improve strength and flexibility at the same time.

Think vegetarian

One study found that people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet reported an improvement in RA symptoms, including pain score, morning stiffness, and grip strength. But if you enjoy eating meat, focus on getting more greens on your plate. The antioxidants, such as those found in green peas and broccoli, may protect against tissue damage around the joints caused by free radicals.

Get support

Having a chronic illness can be isolating, but being open about your condition can help. Feeling comfortable asking for help when you need it—or just having a shoulder to cry on—can make a big difference in how you feel, both physically and mentally. Online and real-life support groups are great places to meet other people with RA and share coping strategies.

Give it a rest

Taking a break can relax your mind, ease pain in your joints, and help reduce the fatigue that’s often associated with RA. On the flip side, avoid too much rest. A inactive lifestyle can be harmful, so intermingle rest periods with activity.

Get your eyes checked

RA can affect the eyes, causing complications that could lead to blindness. Symptoms include blurred vision, pain, redness, and light sensitivity, but anti-inflammatory eye drops can help RA-related eye conditions.

Consider occupational therapy

This type of therapy can be a good bridge to a regular exercise plan. OT helps people live as independently and fully as possible, no matter what his or her age or condition. An occupational therapist will work with you to identify problem areas in your daily life and figure out ways to eliminate them, or work around them.

Do strength training

Studies have shown that moderate- or high-intensity strength training can help increase or maintain muscle strength for people with RA. Another study reports that a program of long-term, high-intensity weight-bearing exercises improves the functional ability, physical capacity, and emotional status of people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Check your vitamins

Many nutrients have been given mixed reviews when it comes to helping patients with RA. For example, some studies showed that vitamin E supplements reduce RA joint destruction and pain, while others do not. In addition, some RA patients take methotrexate to slow disease progression. But the drug also inhibits folic acid metabolism and causes a range of side effects. So make sure you read the fine print before taking vitamins regularly.

Take a warm bath or shower

Moist heat provides relief from rheumatoid arthritis pain by loosening muscles, tendons, and ligaments, as well as increasing blood flow. So taking a warm bath or shower can be a real relaxation session. Also, moist heating pads, available at most pharmacies, can be applied for 10 to 15 minutes at a time for temporary pain relief.

Look into physical therapy

Your doctor may prescribe physical therapy to help heal and strengthen a body part or an area that’s “acting up” and giving you problems, but it’s typically a short-term option. PT is a terrific bridge to an exercise program, though. You can work with your physical therapist to come up with a workout plan that’s right for you.

Think about what you’re eating

Food sensitivities, especially to dairy and shrimp, may aggravate rheumatoid arthritis. Some people try elimination diets, which involve removing all potential allergens from your diet and slowly adding these foods back to see if they trigger symptoms. But there are significant variations within any individual’s symptoms in a given time period, making it difficult to study the effects of these diets.

Take fish oil

Fish oil can ease pain and inflammation. In fact, fish-oil capsules may be as effective for relieving pain and inflammation as drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen. RA patients in studies that found fish oil helpful took high doses, typically 4 grams a day or four standard capsules.

Get a massage

Depending on how your body is feeling, massages can be wonderful—or agonizing. If your joints and muscles aren’t feeling too tender, massages can ease muscle tension related to joint stress. You will be the best judge of whether massage can help you on a particular day, or not. So give it a try! But make sure your massage therapist has experience in treating people with RA.

Consider a cane

A lot of people think a cane signifies disability, but if it helps reduce joint pain, who cares? Canes are easy to find and use and can take up to 20% of your body weight off of your legs, hips, and ankles.

Check out acupuncture

Some people say this ancient Eastern healing technique can trigger the body to release the “feel-good” hormones known as endorphins, thus reducing pain. But skeptics believe it’s just the placebo effect. Only a handful of small studies have shown that acupuncture can help with RA symptoms. Still, many people swear by acupuncture, and there’s really no downside to giving it a try—unless you’re scared of needles.

Use the right tools

Some equipment can help make everyday tasks less painful. Products like pens, knives, can openers, and zipper pulls are available to help you protect your joints. And good news! You don’t always have to look in specialty stores for them. Many tools are designed simply to make them easier to use—kitchen tools with large handles, ergonomic can openers, and large drawer pulls.

Plug into community

Beyond social support, getting active in a community of other people with rheumatoid arthritis can be empowering. Even if you just read blogs, instead of writing one, it can help you feel less isolated. Kelly Young launched her blog, Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior, after being diagnosed with RA at age 40.

Plan carefully

Because you can’t foresee joint flare-ups, it’s a good idea to be prepared and plan for problems before they happen. Make sure any activity you start is one that you can end partway through. Break chores up into sections, and when exercising, you don’t have to do 30 minutes at once.

Don’t feel guilty

If you have to give up some tasks, like making the bed or washing the dishes, don’t feel guilty! When you’re tired and in pain, it’s not your fault. Do the things you must do or really want to do, and find other ways to get less important things done.