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Rheumatoid Arthritis: How to Manage Morning Stiffness

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  • Morning stiffness is common

    Morning stiffness is common

    Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can cause:

    • joint pain
    • stiffness
    • swelling

    RA can be disabling, sometimes permanently. There’s no cure for RA. But many medications can help to slow the disease’s progress and help to relieve the pain it causes.

    Stiff joints upon rising in the morning is one of RA’s most common symptoms. Rheumatologists consider morning stiffness that lasts at least an hour a key diagnostic aspect of RA. Although the stiffness usually loosens and goes away, it can take some time to do so. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to gently ease morning stiffness.

  • Plan ahead

    Plan ahead

    Take pain medications an hour or so before getting out of bed in the morning.

    As you get ready for bed at night, set your alarm clock for an hour before your usual wake-up time. Make sure to put the following items on your nightstand:

    • a dose of pain medication
    • a glass of water
    • a couple of saltine crackers

    When the alarm goes off in the morning, don’t get up. Just swallow the pain medication with plenty of water. Eat the saltines to help prevent stomach upset. Then, reset your alarm for your usual wake-up time.

    Relax. Breathe. Allow yourself to slip softly back to sleep.

  • Exercise in bed

    Exercise in bed

    By the time your alarm rings, the pain medication should be working. But don’t get up quite yet. Stretch gently and do some range-of-motion exercises. It will help warm up your sleepy muscles and loosen those creaky joints.

    Still covered up and warm, lie on your back. Stretch your upper body first, moving your joints gently through their available range of motion. First, turn your head from side to side, loosening your neck. Then stretch the following joints, first on one side and then the other:

    • hands
    • wrists
    • elbows
    • shoulders

    Then do the same with the joints in your lower body:

    • toes
    • ankles
    • knees
    • hips

    Stretch and move your joints as much as you can, slowly and gently. When your joints feel less stiff and painful, get up.

  • Hit the showers

    Hit the showers

    Taking a warm bath or shower is one of the best ways to help relieve morning stiffness. Heat causes the blood to move to the surface of the skin. A warm bath or shower will flush and warm your joints along the way. 

    In the bath, try for a warm 10-to 20-minute soak. Continue to gently move and exercise your joints. Massage them with a washcloth. In the shower, if you have a handheld showerhead, direct the spray to massage stiff, sore joints. Stay in long enough to get nice and warm.

  • Put your dryer to work

    Put your dryer to work

    Before you get dressed for the day, pop your clothes into the dryer for five minutes. Use the highest heat setting. Then go make your coffee, pour your cereal, or put an egg on to boil. 

    When the dryer beeps, get your thoroughly heated clothes out and put them on. The penetrating warmth from the dryer is soothing and will help to loosen up your stiff, achy joints.

  • Eat a good breakfast

    Eat a good breakfast

    Morning is here and you’re running on empty. Your body needs fuel!

    Eating a light but nutritious breakfast can help to ease morning stiffness. An egg or yogurt with whole grain toast, or a bowl of hot or cold whole grain cereal with milk or soymilk. Any one of these choices will give your body the energy it needs to get started.

    As an autoimmune disease, RA makes your body attack its own joints. Your body is also defending itself from other attacks and constantly repairing damage from these attacks. So start off your day with a healthy breakfast. It will fuel your body so it can function properly.

  • Put on the heat

    Put on the heat

    Warming salves or lotions can help to ease stiff, sore joints. Massaged into the skin over the joint, the warmth is penetrating and can last for quite a while. 

    Cloth bags filled with uncooked rice, beans, or other organic substances make terrific heat packs. Zap for a minute or so in the microwave to get it warm. The heat should last for at least 30 minutes. Electric heating pads work well, too.

    If your office is chilly, a small space heater placed strategically under your desk can also help to ease morning stiffness in the joints.

  • Move your body every day

    Move your body every day

    RA can make exercise difficult. When a joint flares up, it can hurt too much to even move it. It’s also easy to overdo exercising when you’re feeling good, which can cause a new flare. The key? Don’t stress painful joints, but do try to move all the others.

    Walking for 15 or 20 minutes a day strengthens the muscles that support your joints. Stretching and moving your joints through simple, gentle, range-of-motion exercises helps to keep them from getting stiff and weak. 

    Keeping your body fit and strong can reduce the amount of time it takes to relieve stiffness and get going in the morning.

  • Don’t stress, ask for help

    Don’t stress, ask for help

    Mornings are always busy. But when your joints are stiff and painful, they can be even harder. So go ahead: ask for help from your family or friends. You may be surprised at how pleased they are to lend a helping hand.

    And finally, be mindful. Make time for yourself every morning, every day, and consider learning to meditate as a way to reduce stress. Rheumatoid arthritis is a serious, painful disease. To lessen the stress of coping, stop and just breathe now and then.