The chronic pain of rheumatoid arthritis can have a major impact on daily activities. People experience inflammation
and swelling that causes joint pain and stiffness, making it hard for them to move around, grip objects firmly, and perform many other everyday tasks.
So how can you get some relief?
Rheumatoid Arthritis 101
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the immune system begins to attack the synovium, a thin layer of soft tissue inside joints that provides cushioning and lubrication. As the synovium degrades, joints begin to swell and lose their flexibility. People most often need rheumatoid arthritis pain relief for joints in the hand, spine, hips, knees, and wrists.
When thinking about rheumatoid arthritis pain relief, it’s helpful to break the pain down into three different classifications, says Nortin M. Hadler, MD, professor of medicine and microbiology/immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and attending rheumatologist at UNC Hospitals. These categories include:
• Joint pain. “It runs in a range from mild to quite severe, almost always is waxing and waning, and always tends to be what we consider the biggest problem,” Dr. Hadler says.
• Joint stiffness. As the disease progresses, you may begin to lose flexibility in the affected joints, and the more flexibility you lose, the more the joints hurt, says Hadler.
• Emotional pain. All this pain and stiffness can begin to take an emotional toll on you. “It can be the dominant hallmark of the illness,” Hadler says. “It’s a consequence of the compromise in personal effectiveness — as in ‘who am I and how do other people perceive me and what can I accomplish?’ For many people with the disease, it’s this emotional component that’s overwhelming.”
Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain Relief
To help manage all the types of pain that accompany rheumatoid arthritis:
• Medication. There is a wide range of medication available to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Some agents, like over-the-counter NSAIDs and prescription corticosteroids, help relieve pain by reducing inflammation. Anti-rheumatic drugs like methotrexate treat the disease itself.
• Diet. Losing weight by eating a balanced diet can reduce stress and strain on your joints. Some early research suggests that increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids by eating fish or taking supplements may help reduce joint inflammation. On the other hand, limiting your consumption of red meat and saturated fats could help because they contain arachidonic acid, a fatty acid that promotes inflammation.
• Heat and cold therapy. Applying cold packs or ice bags to an aching joint can numb the pain and reduce inflammation and is particularly useful during an arthritis flare-up. Heat therapy through the use of heating pads, warm baths, or other methods can help relax muscles and stimulate blood flow in the area of the joint.
• Massage. Hands-on therapy can bring great relief to muscles and joints, helping to relax and warm muscles that have become tense through chronic pain. Massage can also promote the release of endorphins, naturally produced hormones that act as painkillers. You can try self-massage or visit a licensed massage therapist to help soothe your aches and pains.
• Exercise. It is essential to stay fit, as strong muscles can better support joints racked by arthritis pain. “Most joints rely on muscle,” Hadler says. “Part and parcel of joint inflammation is that the muscles around the joint get weaker, and then the joint is less effective.” Exercise can also improve flexibility and reduce symptoms of pain. Talk with your doctor about good forms of exercise for your particular arthritis symptoms. Non-impact exercises like water aerobics are often best.
• Occupational therapy. An occupational therapist can help you avoid pain by coming up with alternative ways to perform household and work tasks that reduce the stress placed on your joints. These can include custom splints that help support particular joints or tools to ease tasks like opening jars.
• Counseling & Meditation. Seeing a therapist can help you deal with issues like depression and anxiety that may stem from your arthritis pain. A therapist also can coach you in coping skills that will allow you to better deal with pain from arthritis flare-ups. Also, meditation can shift your attention away from your pain by helping you relax and focus on more pleasant things.
• Music therapy. Listening to calming or soothing music has been shown to help relieve chronic pain and stress. Choose the music yourself or consult with a credentialed music therapist.
• Support groups. It’s easy to become something of a hermit when dealing with chronic arthritis pain, as you don’t want to move around too much. Joining a support group can keep you from feeling isolated and lonely. Members of the group can also provide tips on managing pain based on what’s worked for them.
The pain of rheumatoid arthritis can lead to frustration, but these coping methods can minimize its effects on your daily routine.