How can I exercise if I have pain from rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?

Individuals suffering from rheumatoid arthritis typically have joint pain and stiffness, most commonly effecting the joints in the hands, feet, wrist and knees. When a person's joints are stiff and painful exercise may be the last thing they want to do. However, exercising regularly may be one of the best things to do to take care of yourself and your joints.

Stretching, strength and aerobic exercises are all safe and effective for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Focusing on core, balance and flexibility training will be very important.

Stretching exercises consist of stretching and holding different joint and muscle groups for 10 to 30 seconds each. Static gastrocnemius stretch is great to stretch the calf muscles. A static kneeling hip flexor stretch is another great stretch.

Strength, or resistance, training involve working the muscle against resistance, and can be done with or without weights. An individual should start with very low number of repetitions and gradually increase to the number usually associated with improved muscular fitness, such as 10 to 12 repetitions, 2 to 3 times per week, before increasing weight or resistance.

Aerobic exercise improves cardiovascular fitness, which makes your heart and blood vessels healthier. Some activities that may be beneficial are walking, swimming, stationary cycling or using an elliptical machine.

An individual with rheumatoid arthritis should avoid high-impact activities such as jogging on a paved road and heavy weight lifting. However, if you would still like to participate in these activities be sure to check with your physician first.

Exercises that cause pain to persist for more than 1 hour after exercise shold be modified or removed from your routine.

It is important to remember that improving muscle strength and enhancing flexibility through exercise can decrease arthritic symptoms.

While exercise may seem unappealing if you're experiencing frequent pain from rheumatoid arthritis (RA), there are a number of techniques to help you get through a program:

  • Moist heat supplied by warm towels, hot packs, a bath or a shower can be used at home for 15 to 20 minutes three times a day to relieve symptoms. Applying heat before exercise can be a good way to start. A healthcare professional can apply deep heat using short waves, microwaves and ultrasound to relieve pain.
  • Cold supplied by a bag of ice or frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel helps stop pain and reduce swelling when used for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. This treatment often is recommended for acutely inflamed joints. Do not use cold treatments if you have numbness or poor circulation.
  • Hydrotherapy (water therapy) can decrease pain and stiffness. Exercising in a large pool may be easier because water takes some weight off painful joints. Many community centers, YMCAs and YWCAs have water exercise classes developed for people with arthritis. You may also find relief from the heat and movement of a whirlpool.
  • When performed by a trained professional, massage and manipulation (using the hands to restore normal movement to stiff joints) can help control pain and increase joint motion and muscle and tendon flexibility.

Although these types of physical therapy can temporarily relieve symptoms, none have documented anti-inflammatory effects or affect the rate of joint damage that can occur in RA.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.