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Can I manage rheumatoid arthritis (RA) with lifestyle changes?

Rheumatoid arthritis makes your joints more vulnerable to injury. Inflamed joints can be damaged by everyday activities you may not even think of as risky. And repeated jarring or stress may eventually cause joints to become deformed. Learning how to avoid overstressing your joints can help you through flares and also help maintain your range of motion.

Joint protection involves first paying attention to how you use your body and then using all of your joints efficiently to avoid excess stress on any one joint. Here's an example: grocery shopping. You want to use your largest, strongest joints for carrying things, so don't carry a heavy shopping bag with your hands, wrists or fingertips. Instead, wrap both arms around and under the bag. And take rest stops to put the bag down. Even better: Take a cart or a bag with wheels to the supermarket.

Good ergonomics—comfortable and safe positioning at work and at home—can also help protect your joints. Maintain proper posture—don't slouch. And if you spend a lot of time sitting, take a break every couple of hours to get up and walk around for a few minutes. If you spend a lot of time standing, take breaks to sit or lie down.

An occupational therapist can give you practical tips and how-tos for protecting your joints, such as the best ways to open jars (press down with the flat of your hand), and can tell you about assistive devices that may make everyday tasks easier, both at home and at work. In addition, a splint, brace or cane can provide temporary rest and support for a specific joint. A physical therapist or occupational therapist can fit you appropriately and train you how to use the device properly.

During flares, most physicians recommend 10 to 12 hours of rest each day, including nighttime sleep, brief "lie-downs" (you're awake but resting), and daytime naps.

Find out how this young woman manages living with rheumatoid arthritis.

While health care professionals must be involved in your care, there are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to help manage RA. Eating a healthy diet can enhance your overall health and help you better manage your RA. Although drinking has no known impact on the disease itself, you may need to avoid alcoholic beverages, depending on the RA medications you are taking, especially the often-prescribed methotrexate. Check with your health care professional.

Stress reduction is also important because your stress level may affect the amount of pain you feel. Rest and exercise—seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum—are important to your health. When your RA is active, you will want more rest. But exercise is critical to healthy muscles, joint mobility and flexibility.  Be sure and discuss any exercise program with your health care professional before starting.  While exercise may seem unappealing if you're experiencing frequent pain, 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.11 A health care 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. 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.