Coping With Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Rheumatoid arthritis is more than just pain in the joints. It's a life-changing disease that requires a lot of adaptations on your part. It can be scary and overwhelming at times, but you can take control now by facing and overcoming the challenges of living with the disease, both current and future.

Find Support For Living With RA

Verywell / Joshua Seong

Finding Support

After getting a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, you'll need to think about a few different types of support you could need: functional, financial, and emotional. It's good to get working on these support networks now, even if you don't need them yet, so they're in place when you do need them.

Functional Support

Functional support can help you through every stage of your treatment. The aim is to build a team of health professionals with you as an active partner in your own care.

This team may include:

  • Your primary care healthcare provider (PCP), who oversees your general health and coordinates medical specialists.
  • A rheumatologist, who specializes in musculoskeletal diseases and autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis.
  • A physical therapist, who can help you regain your strength, mobility, and range of motion.
  • An occupational therapist, who can provide you with the tools, strategies, and "workarounds" to overcome physical barriers in daily life.
  • A psychologist or psychiatrist, who can help you deal with the stress, anxiety, and depression that can come with chronic illness.
  • A social worker, who can help you navigate the healthcare system.

It's important for you to educate yourself about rheumatoid arthritis. You can start with the resources here at Verywell Health, as well as those offered by the Arthritis Foundation.

For live support, information, or referrals, call the Arthritis Foundation's 24-hour hotline at 1-800-283-7800.

Financial Support

Rheumatoid arthritis can be expensive. Even if you have health insurance, deductible and copay costs can often be exorbitant. Insurance may not cover some medications, especially newer-generation biologic drugs or JAK inhibitors.

To help defray some of the major expenses of treatment, financial assistance programs are available to both uninsured people and those whose insurance doesn't fully cover drug costs. If you need help, these two organizations are a good place to start:

  • Partnership for Prescription Assistance is a non-profit organization that can help you obtain free or nearly free medications if you are uninsured, underinsured, or financially eligible. Eligibility is typically based on an annual income lower than five times the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) for an individual, couple, or family.
  • Patient Advocate Foundation is a charitable organization that can help you obtain co-pay assistance. Eligibility rules are less stringent, it's typically not based on income, and the only people excluded are those whose medications are covered by Medicare, Medicaid, and other low-income subsidies.

Emotional Support

The emotional impact of rheumatoid arthritis can be every bit as profound as the physical aspects. Especially when starting treatment, you may have ups and downs that are hard to deal with.

Remember that telling a friend or family member what you're going through isn't "complaining." It not only helps you, it also helps them understand what you're dealing with and opens their eyes to your needs and concerns.

Additionally, it helps to find other people affected by rheumatoid arthritis. Support groups are great places to find solace, seek advice, and get to know people who understand exactly what you're going through.

If you can’t find a group near you, contact the Arthritis Foundation's website to get connected to a support network in your region. They can provide you the training to start a member network of your own, too, if that's something you want to take on.

Other support options include:

  • Finding a rheumatoid arthritis support group on Facebook
  • Starting a live support group of your own on Meetup
  • Searching support group listings on the non-profit CreakyJoints website (or listing your own support group there)

If feelings of depression or anxiety persist despite support, ask your healthcare provider for a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist experienced in chronic diseases.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Healthcare Provider Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Man

Lifestyle Changes

Two of the key modifiable risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis are obesity and smoking. Both of them can make your symptoms more severe, as well. It's important to incorporate weight loss, exercise, and smoking cessation into your treatment plan.

Dietary Goals

While there is no rheumatoid arthritis "diet," per se, a number of principles can guide you in your effort to lose weight and control your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms:

  • Start with a well-balanced diet in which two-thirds of your intake comes from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while the other third comes from low-fat dairy products and lean sources of protein.
  • Try to include plenty of coldwater fish in your diet (such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, trout, and herring), which are rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. If you'd rather take a fish oil supplement, avoid overuse as it can interfere with certain drugs, including high blood pressure medications.
  • Extra virgin olive oil contains a substance called oleocanthal, which blocks the same inflammatory enzyme as nonsteroidal painkillers.
  • A high-fiber diet may reduce levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in your blood. This is one of two primary compounds used to measure inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis blood tests.

You may notice a difference right away after making dietary changes, but it may take a few weeks for you to see the full impact.

When first starting out, consider meeting with a qualified nutritionist who can help you establish realistic nutrition and, if necessary, weight loss goals.

Rapid weight loss can cause metabolic stress that may increase the risk of a rheumatoid arthritis flare. Slow and steady is always the best approach.


You may be able to achieve weight loss with diet alone, but you will be unlikely to sustain it without routine exercise. Whatever the stage of your disease, exercise is extremely beneficial, enhancing joint flexibility and range of motion while lowering the risk of relapse. As with diet, a moderate approach will do you far more good than pushing hard and promoting inflammation.

The American College of Rheumatology suggests setting several goals for yourself when embarking on a fitness plan:

  • Moderate-intensity aerobic activity should be performed every week for a total of 150 minutes spread out over several days. Swimming and walking are examples of low-impact, cardio activities that won't overexert your joints.
  • Stretching exercises should be done at least three to five days a week; hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.
  • Strength building should be performed two to three times a week and involve eight to 10 exercises with eight to 10 repetitions per exercise. Older people may want to do 10 to 15 repetitions with smaller weights.
  • Range-of-motion stretches can be performed five to 10 times in the morning or evening. You may want to include gentle rotator cuff, elbow, and knee stretches as part of your routine.

Start slowly and steadily increase the during and intensity of your workouts. If you push yourself too hard and trigger symptoms, back off and go slower for a while. It's about feeling better, not hitting benchmarks.

Your physical therapist can provide you with a complete workout plan appropriate for your age and condition.

Smoking Cessation

Quitting cigarettes is never easy, but it's important for anyone with rheumatoid arthritis. As a rule, combining counseling with quit-smoking aids gives you a far better chance of success than quitting cold turkey. In addition to over-the-counter nicotine patches, gum, and lozenges, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved four prescription drugs that may help:

  • Nicotine inhalers
  • Nicotine nasal sprays
  • Zyban (bupropion)
  • Chantix (varenicline)

Smoking cessation treatment is covered by Medicaid, Medicare, and most private insurance plans.

If you are in need of support, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345. They can connect you to a telephone quitline is your state or a support group in your area.

Practical Tips

Rheumatoid arthritis doesn't have to stand in your way of living a productive life. Sometimes all it takes is a few adjustments to overcome the physical and emotional challenges you may be facing.

It can help to:

  • Reorganize your drawers: If you have trouble reaching high or bending low, place the things you use most on the lower shelf of a cabinet or in the top drawer. Don't confine yourself to putting things where it might seem "normal" to someone else. For example, instead of putting dish soap under the sink, put it in a low cabinet and save yourself from having to bend over.
  • Change positions often: When writing, release your grip every 10 minutes or so to keep your hand from stiffening up. When watching television or working at your laptop, get up at regular intervals to stretch your legs.
  • Find better tools: Plenty of utensils and tools are made for people with arthritis. Ratcheted kitchen scissors do all the work for you; anti-vibration gloves allow you to grip the vacuum handle without pain. Explore technology with voice control so you can go hands-free.
  • Conserve energy: Try to alternate periods of rest and activity whether you are at work or play. When possible, schedule your day in advance so that you can run around or go to meetings when you have the most energy and find quiet time in between to recharge.
  • Use heat to treat joint stiffness: ​Instead of always reaching for pills, explore other ways to get yourself moving in the morning. Heat increases blood circulation and relaxes tissues. An electric or microwaveable heating pad or a hot bath or shower can often help overcome morning stiffness and get you moving.
  • Use cold to treat an acute attack: Cold alleviates swelling while numbing away your pain. When using ice or a gel ice pack, do not place it directly on your skin or leave it in one place for more than 15 minutes. Doing so can lead to frostbite. A piece of cloth can protect your skin, but make sure it's not too thick for the cold to get through. For example, a t-shirt is a better choice than a hand towel.
  • Explore mind-body therapies: Mind-body therapies recognize that our thoughts and moods influence both our reaction to pain and our overall state of well-being. Some of the techniques commonly used to support rheumatoid arthritis therapy include meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), and deep breathing exercises (pranayama).
  • Keep a symptom journal: A journal can help you identify the things that trigger symptom flares or make you feel better. Writing down your goals makes it more likely that you'll achieve them, as well. You can also keep track of your diet, exercise, medications, and other treatments, which can be helpful to you and your healthcare team.
  • Prioritize sleep. Getting enough quality sleep can help you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Make time for it and talk to your healthcare provider if you have trouble sleeping well due to pain or other symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What triggers RA flare-ups?

    Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms can flare up from emotional or physical stress, illness, overexertion, lack of sleep, and eating foods with poor nutritional quality. 

  • What foods should you avoid if you have RA?

    Pro-inflammatory foods may make arthritis symptoms worse. If you have RA, avoiding or limiting sugar, refined carbohydrates, fried foods, grilled or broiled meat, gluten, preservatives, and alcohol may help keep symptoms at bay.

  • Can you live a long life with rheumatoid arthritis?

    Yes. Statistically speaking, RA can shorten a person’s lifespan by an average of 10 years. However, people with RA can still live into their 80s or 90s.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer covering arthritis and chronic illness, who herself has been diagnosed with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.