Your Guide to Living Well With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Being Active in Your Care, Managing Flares, Reducing Stress, and More

If you have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you know how exhausting, unpredictable, and painful the condition can be. But things like early diagnosis and treatment, and good disease management can all help to lead to positive outcomes.

There is plenty you can do to live well and have a good quality of life with and despite RA. Here are some tips to help you to manage RA pain, fatigue, and other symptoms.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Be Active in Your Care

Research shows that people with RA who take an active role in their healthcare have reduced healthcare costs, positive health outcomes, and overall improved quality of life.

You can play an active role in managing your RA by following the recommended treatment plan your healthcare provider has prescribed. This is especially important if you have comorbidities of RA, including diabetes and heart disease.

You should also learn as much as you can about RA and work with your healthcare provider to design a treatment plan that works best for your unique situation. Communicate clearly what your expectations and concerns are so that these are included in treatment planning.

Manage Flares

RA can be a frustrating condition because it is unpredictable. You may be feeling well one moment and the next, you suddenly find yourself struggling with pain, swelling, and fatigue.

The best way to manage flares (periods of high disease activity) is to listen to your body and do what you can to recover. Get plenty of rest, eat healthily, use hot and cold packs on inflamed joints, practice stress relief, ask for help with harder tasks, and go easy on yourself.

If you are still struggling with a flare after a couple of days, call your healthcare provider. They can prescribe a corticosteroid to reduce inflammation and help you recover quicker.

Reduce Stress

Having RA is stressful, and recent research has suggested psychological stress can interfere with immune system function. Additionally, chronic inflammation affects your responses and coping behaviors, which may lead to long-term problems in RA.

Stress can contribute to a worse perception of pain and RA flares. In fact, research shows people with RA who report high levels of psychological stress have more severe disease activity, including pain, fatigue, and symptoms.

Learn to recognize stressors that trigger flares and the ways in which you can reduce those. Stress-reducing activities include exercise, meditation, a warm bath, or sipping on a hot cup of tea in a quiet area. Remember to listen to your body, practice positivity, and be kind to yourself.

Keep Moving

The positive effects of exercise in the management of RA are clear and proven. It is a simple, drug-free solution that offers improvement without hurting the joints or worsening disease activity.

Being active strengthens muscles around the joints and helps with maintaining bone strength, improving balance and range of motion, promoting energy, improving sleep, managing weight, and increasing quality of life.

Talk to your healthcare provider about what types of exercises you can do with RA and how you can incorporate exercise into your treatment plan.

Eat Right

Your diet plays an important role in managing RA inflammation. While there is no specific diet for RA, eating foods high in antioxidants may reduce inflammation. Plant-based foods are loaded with antioxidants.

Foods to avoid are those that trigger free radicals. Free radicals cause cell damage that leads to inflammation and a whole host of diseases. Examples of foods that promote free radicals and inflammation are fried foods and junk foods.

An anti-inflammatory diet should include a variety of foods that are rich in nutrients, a range of antioxidants, and healthy fats.

Foods that may help reduce inflammation include:

  • Oily fish like tuna and salmon
  • Fruits, including blueberries, cherries, and strawberries
  • Vegetables, including kale and spinach
  • Fiber-rich foods, including beans and lentils
  • Healthy fats, including olive oil
  • Spices, like ginger and turmeric
  • Foods high in probiotics and prebiotics, like yogurt and kefir

An anti-inflammatory diet can reduce the number of flare-ups you have, or it may reduce your pain. And even if it doesn’t help your RA pain, an anti-inflammatory diet is healthy, which means it can reduce your risk for other diseases, especially those considered comorbidities of RA.

Sleep Well

Not getting enough sleep can bring about RA flares and make symptoms and pain worse. A study reported in 2018 by the Clinical of Clinical Medicine looked at the sleep quality of people with RA and its connection to inflammation, pain, and functional disability.

The study group of mostly women showed 57% were experiencing sleep problems. Those experiencing sleep problems were also reporting high levels of pain and higher incidences of disability. The researchers concluded the importance of healthcare providers being aware of sleep issues in RA and in reducing the burden of sleep problems in this group.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, all adults should aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Try to get to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning.

Avoid reading, watching TV, or using electronic devices in bed. You should also avoid stimulating activities, like exercising and drinking caffeinated beverages, to close to bedtime.

If RA pain is keeping you up at night, talk to your healthcare provider about better ways to manage pain so that you can sleep better.

If you continue to struggle with getting a good night’s sleep, make an appointment for a sleep study, and to discuss with a sleep specialist treatments that might help.

Nix the Bad Habits

Smoking cigarettes and overconsumption of alcohol can increase inflammation and make RA symptoms worse. They can also increase your risk for other serious conditions like heart disease and osteoporosis.

Smoking is linked to more severe disease in people with RA. Smoking also decreases the potential for remission (inactive disease) and reduces the effectiveness of RA mediations. Additionally, research shows smoking with RA increases the risk of early death.

Quitting smoking is one of the best ways to reduce your risk for RA complications and disability and improve the effectiveness of treatments.

Drinking too much alcohol can reduce bone density and puts you at a higher risk for fractures. It can also tax your liver, increase the potential for bone erosion and joint damage, and reduce the effectiveness of your RA medications.

Alcohol in moderation might be safe, but you should check with your healthcare provider and follow their advice.

Protect Your Joints

Joint protection is a proven way to manage RA pain and help you to perform activities more easily. A study reported in 2018 by the journal MOJ Orthopedics & Rheumatology finds people with RA benefit from joint protection with reduced pain, better joint function, reduced stiffness, and better function when performing activities of daily living.

Joint protection techniques are recommended ways to perform activities of daily living without putting too much stress on joints so that your pain is reduced, your joints are protected, and your energy is conserved.

This can include proper techniques for lifting and carrying, using assistive tools, and resting to reduce pain and symptoms, especially during periods of flare-up.

Get Support

Having RA can make your life complicated. After all, you are constantly dealing with the effects on the disease on your life, relationships, and work.

Friends and family can offer help and moral support. Think about what things you might need help with and be specific when asking loved ones to help out. Loved ones can’t help you if they don’t know what you need.

For example, you can ask for help cleaning your home or with preparing a meal on the days you struggle with flares. Or you can share your feelings and frustrations about living with RA with the people in your life.

Consider joining a support group for emotional support and information to better manage your RA. Even people who have strong personal support networks can benefit from connecting with others who share similar struggles and daily challenges.

A Word From Verywell

The outlook for most people with RA is generally good. And thanks to advances in medications and treatment strategies, the prognosis for most people is better than it’s ever been.

Work your healthcare provider to establish a treatment plan that includes good lifestyle habits, positive ways to cope, improved sleep, and lots of support from loved ones. Living with rheumatoid arthritis can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be.

10 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.
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By Lana Barhum
Lana Barhum has been a freelance medical writer since 2009. She shares advice on living well with chronic disease.