For patients living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), every day can sometimes feel like a challenge. In some cases, it starts before the morning comes, as pain and stiffness associated with the disease could make sleeping difficult or near impossible. While there is currently no cure for RA, a combination of the right medication regimen and lifestyle modifications can help make the symptoms more manageable.
Turn Up the Heat
Heat may help relief joint pain and stiffness, especially first thing in the morning after a long night of inactivity.
“Heat helps improve your pain tolerance and relaxes muscles, both of which can reduce the pain of rheumatoid arthritis,” according to Harvard Health. “Heat treatment remains a standard part of the physical therapist’s practice.”
There are also ways to warm up right at home. Starting the day with a long, hot shower may be helpful, as could a heating pad. Harvard Health notes that moist heat may be more effective than dry heat, so using a microwave to heat a damp towel could be especially effective. On the more difficult days, one patient suggests breaking out the heavy artillery: heated blankets.
“I actually have two and I make myself into a kind of hot sandwich between them,” Angela K. shared with CreakyJoints. “I turn them on high and just soak in the warmth for 15 or so minutes before I get out of bed.”
Another patient speaking with CreakyJoints, Stephanie M., said she sleeps with a heated mattress cover to make the mornings easier.
While the pain and stiffness that come with RA could make stretching and physical activity sound like a bad idea, patients and experts agree that the opposite is in fact true. The Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network (RASN) recommends light activities such as walking and yoga in order to fix range of motion issues and increase flexibility. Other low-impact activities include swimming and the use of the treadmill or elliptical. RA patients can also practice strength training to help increase muscle strength.
As is the case with any patient, physical activity prevents RA patients from engaging in a sedentary lifestyle, which could exacerbate stiffness as well as lead to weight gain. Weight management is important for RA, too, as being overweight puts additional pressure on the joints, the RASN notes. The Arthritis Foundation suggests additional arthritis-friendly exercises, including golf, Pilates, and tai chi.
To approach an exercise regimen in the presence of arthritis pain, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends following “S.M.A.R.T.” tips: Start low, go slow; Modify activity when arthritis symptoms increase, try to stay active; Activities should be “joint friendly”; Recognize safe places and ways to be active; and Talk to a health professional or certified exercise specialist.
The CDC also gives several recommendations for pain management during and after exercise:
- Make modifications in the beginning, such as exercising fewer days per week or fewer minutes per session
- Switch to exercises that put less pressure on the joints (e.g., from walking to water aerobics)
- Be sure to include a proper warm-up and cool-down routine in your exercise plan
- Keep your pace comfortable while exercising
- Wear comfortable shoes
Follow These Diet Dos and Don’ts
Although no magic food will cure RA, eating certain foods while eliminating or minimizing others may help ease its symptoms. Experts recommend sticking to an anti-inflammatory diet and avoiding foods that cause inflammation.
Inflammation is the body’s response to foreign objects that may cause it harm. On the outside, inflammation often manifests through redness and swelling, but inflammation can happen inside the body, too. Diet may contribute to inflammation.
Some foods have anti-inflammatory properties and can be helpful to reduce inflammation. Some of these foods include:
- Leafy greens like spinach and kale
- Fruits including strawberries and blueberries
- Foods with healthy fats, such as salmon
- Nuts like walnuts
- Olive oil
On the other hand, certain foods may trigger an inflammatory response in the body. The bottom line? Use common sense. Generally speaking, “junk food” items should only be consumed infrequently if avoiding or limiting inflammation is the goal. Unsurprisingly, it’s a lot of the “fun” stuff. Here are some foods to limit or avoid to reduce inflammation:
- Soda, “fruit” juices with added sugar, and other sugar-sweetened beverages
- Fast food/fried foods
- Sugary breakfast cereals
- Red meat
- Processed meats
Get Enough Shut-eye
Sleep is crucial for a variety of health reasons—two of which include diet and exercise. Catching those zzz’s every night increases the chances of sticking to a healthy diet and exercise plan.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Research shows that all mammals need sleep, and that sleep regulates mood and is related to learning and memory functions. Not only will getting your zzzs help you perform on a test, learn a new skill or help you stay on task, but it may also be a critical factor in your health, weight and energy level.”
Sleep may also affect diet. Maintaining a proper sleep schedule will lead to less daytime sleepiness—and lessen the chance of reaching for an unhealthy, sugar-bomb option for that afternoon pick-me-up.