Tips for Living Well With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a type of autoimmune arthritis. In RA, the immune system attacks itself, leading to joint stiffness, pain, swelling, and deformity in some cases. People with RA can also experience fatigue and systemic effects on the heart, lungs, eyes, and more.

RA is a chronic condition that needs to be managed daily. It can affect all aspects of someone's life, including getting dressed, driving, doing housework, or other day-to-day activities. Though there are medical treatments to help manage RA symptoms, people with RA can also benefit from adopting lifestyle changes to help manage their condition.

In this article, learn more about tips for living well with RA.

A senior African-American woman with long braided hair taking a tai chi class in the park with a group of other seniors.

kali9 / Getty Images

Manage Stress

Stress is a trigger for many chronic diseases, RA included. Research shows that through a complicated pathway, stress can increase inflammation, which can then increase RA symptoms, such as pain, swelling, or stiffness.

Everyone has some degree of stress in their lives, so it's unrealistic to suggest that stress can be totally eliminated. However, there are some ways you can learn to manage your existing stress and, in time, reduce it.

Some stress management tactics include:

  • Talking to a therapist
  • Following your prescribed RA treatment plan
  • Doing regular, gentle movements, such as arthritis-adapted yoga
  • Taking relaxation breaks
  • Getting outside
  • Praciticing meditation and mindfulness
  • Journaling (writing down your thoughts and feelings)

Learn Your RA Triggers

Journaling for a month or more can help identify your personal RA triggers. In your journal, include your daily symptoms, as well as sleep patterns, diet, exercise, weather, stressors, and life events. Look back at the end of the month and take note of any patterns.

Watch Your Weight

Your weight can affect your RA symptoms, as well as long-term outcomes of RA treatment. However, watching your weight with RA is complex.

In the United States, approximately two-thirds of people with RA have obesity, which is consistent with the general population.

Excess fat can produce small, secreted proteins known as cytokines, which leads to inflammation and worsening RA symptoms. Obesity among those with RA is also associated with greater disability and poor response to biologics and other medical treatments.

Losing weight may help some people. One study found that weight loss of greater than 5 kilograms (about 11 pounds) among people with RA who were overweight or obese at baseline resulted in improved RA disease activity.

On the other hand, research also shows the dangers of extreme weight loss among people who have RA. One study found that weight loss of greater than 30 pounds during the early RA period is associated with increased risk of death. The research also found that a weight gain of greater than 30 pounds had no effect on mortality.

Overall, maintaining a stable weight is important in managing RA symptoms. Your healthcare provider may refer you to a dietitian to help with this.

Get Enough Sleep

Poor sleep can lead to RA flares (times when symptoms worsen). When you don't get enough sleep, the body produces stress hormones that can increase inflammation and RA symptoms. Unfortunately, this can be a vicious cycle, because those very symptoms of pain and discomfort can then make it harder to fall asleep.

It is therefore very important to get enough sleep when you have RA, but remember to be patient with yourself and realize that all the different things going on—like pain or anxiety about your RA diagnosis—may be impacting your sleep.

Your provider can help you identify what is causing your RA-related sleep issues. Steps to take to improve sleep quality include:

  • Getting pain under control through a pain management program
  • Addressing anxiety
  • Adjusting RA medications that may increase sleeplessness as a side effect
  • Adding medications to promote sleep
  • Practicing sleep hygiene
  • Diagnosing any possible sleep disorders

Follow an Exercise Plan

When you are fatigued and in pain, it can seem daunting to exercise. However, following an exercise plan, particularly one modified for RA, can really help your RA symptoms in the long run.

Research shows that aerobic and strengthening exercises don't worsen symptoms of RA, and exercise may improve fatigue, cardiovascular health, and psychological health, as well as reduce inflammation.

Regular exercise can also help lubricate your joints, maintain your mobility, strengthen the muscles that support your joints, and release endorphins and reduce stress.

However, you may find that some types of exercise, especially high-impact ones like running, can worsen RA symptoms. Try to focus on low-impact exercises, such as:

  • Yoga
  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Pilates
  • Water aerobics
  • Tai chi
  • Weight lifting
  • Stationary bicycling
  • Barre

If you are struggling to exercise with RA, consider seeing a physical therapist or occupational therapist. They can prescribe a therapeutic home exercise program specifically designed for you, while considering any personal barriers to exercise you might have.

Limit Alcohol Intake

There is conflicting research on the impact of alcohol on RA.

A small body of research indicates that drinking a few drinks per week may have benefits for RA, and even reduce the risks of developing RA. One study even found that drinking small amounts of beer improved functional status with RA.

On the other hand, research has also found that alcohol can increase inflammation and lead to greater joint erosion among people with RA.

Overall, it is best to only drink alcohol in moderation, and scientists recommend that if you don't already drink alcohol, you shouldn't start.

Interactions With RA Medications

Another reason to limit or avoid drinking alcohol if you have RA is that alcohol interacts with some medications for RA. This means that if you drink alcohol and take those medications at the same time, you risk damaging your liver and experiencing unpleasant and sometimes dangerous side effects.

Quit Smoking

Unlike with alcohol, the research pointing to the link between smoking and RA is undeniable. Smoking is a risk factor for developing and progression of RA. It is even linked to a higher death rate for those with RA.

Not only does smoking increase your risk of developing RA and worsen existing RA, but it can also reduce the effectiveness of RA medications.

It can be really difficult to quit smoking, and particularly so for people with RA who may be using smoking as a habit to numb the pain they are in. Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to quit smoking.

Ask for Help

If you have RA, simply asking for help can do a lot to ease your burdens, both physically and emotionally.

First, talk to your healthcare providers about your treatment regimen. It's OK to ask for a referral to physical or occupational therapy, even if your provider doesn't bring it up first.

Second, ask your friends, family, and neighbors for help. You don't need to do everything yourself, or the way you've always done it. You may discover that people in your life are glad to be asked, and may find their own meaning in helping you out.

Tips to Make Your Life Easier With RA

Some ways to make your life easier with RA include:

  • Plan your weekly and daily routine ahead of time, and spread out the most demanding activities.
  • Batch cook, or prep your ingredients the day ahead, to reduce time in the kitchen.
  • Use a kitchen stool and sit as you cook or do dishes.
  • Sit down while you dress or bathe.
  • Move items along counter surfaces rather than lifting them.
  • Reorganize your cabinets and closet so that items are at chest height.
  • Use adaptive equipment, such as reachers and grabbers to access items, dressing sticks to put clothes on and off, and built-up handle grips on utensils.
  • Hire cleaners or consider a robot vacuum.
  • Order grocery delivery or pickup.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

RA can lead to significant disability, loss of meaningful activities, and even damage psychological well-being. If you find yourself unable to do the things you need and want to do because of your RA symptoms, consider making an appointment to see your healthcare provider.

Summary

Certain lifestyle changes can reduce your RA symptoms and improve your level of function and ability to engage in everyday life. If you have RA, consider implementing lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, reaching out for help from others, drinking alcohol in moderation, getting regular exercise, watching your weight, getting more sleep, and managing stress.

A Word From Verywell

If you are concerned about RA limitations on your life, talk to your healthcare provider. Taking your medications is one part of managing RA, but there are many lifestyle changes that can also significantly help. Your provider can make recommendations specific to you, or refer you to another health professional who can.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is rheumatoid arthritis a disability?

    The symptoms of RA can be disabling. However, not everyone with RA is disabled. Level of disability typically depends on the progression of the disease, and each person's unique symptom profile. The Social Security Administration does consider RA a disability, but the person must also have symptoms so severe that they cannot work for a year or more.

  • What does rheumatoid arthritis feel like?

    Rheumatoid arthritis affects the joints, which can feel stiff, swollen, achey, painful, tender, and stuck. People with RA also often feel intense, whole-body fatigue and malaise (general feeling of being unwell).

  • Can you live a long life with RA?

    Unfortunately, research does show that RA can reduce the life span by 10–15 years. Life span depends on a number of factors, including any co-occurring conditions and lifestyle factors. Therefore, it's important to manage RA by keeping your healthcare provider appointments and staying compliant with any medical and therapeutic treatment regimens to help prevent disease progression.

Was this page helpful?
13 Sources
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.
  1. Liu YZ, Wang YX, Jiang CL. Inflammation: the common pathway of stress-related diseasesFront Hum Neurosci. 2017;11:316. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2017.00316

  2. Arthritis Foundation. How stress affects arthritis.

  3. Arthritis Foundation. How fat affects rheumatoid arthritis.

  4. Kreps DJ, Halperin F, Desai SP, et al. Association of weight loss with improved disease activity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis: A retrospective analysis using electronic medical record dataInt J Clin Rheumtol. 2018;13(1):1-10. doi:10.4172/1758-4272.1000154

  5. Sparks JA, Chang S, Nguyen U, et al. Weight change during the early rheumatoid arthritis period and risk of subsequent mortality in women with rheumatoid arthritis and matched comparatorsArthritis Rheumatol. 2018;70(1):18-29. doi:10.1002/art.40346

  6. Arthritis Foundation. Rheumatoid arthritis and sleep.

  7. Metsios GS, Stavropoulos-Kalinoglou A, Kitas GD. The role of exercise in the management of rheumatoid arthritisExpert Review of Clinical Immunology. 2015;11(10):1121-1130. doi:10.1586/1744666X.2015.1067606

  8. National Health Service. Living with rheumatoid arthritis.

  9. Lu B, Solomon DH, Costenbader KH, et al. Alcohol consumption and risk of incident rheumatoid arthritis in women: a prospective studyArthritis Rheumatol. 2014;66(8):1998-2005. doi:10.1002/art.38634

  10. Sageloli F, Quesada JL Fautrel B, et al. Moderate alcohol consumption is associated with increased radiological progression in women, but not in men, with early rheumatoid arthritis: results from the ESPOIR cohortScand J Rheumatol. 2018;47(6):440-446. doi:10.1080/03009742.2018.1437216

  11. NYU Langone Health. Lifestyle changes for rheumatoid arthritis.

  12. Joseph RM, Movahedi M, Dixon WG, et al. Smoking-related mortality in patients with early rheumatoid arthritis: a retrospective cohort study using the clinical practice research datalinkArthritis Care Res. 2016;68(11):1598-1606. doi:10.1002/acr.22882

  13. Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network. RA life expectancy: does rheumatoid arthritis affect life span?.