Although research into medications to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is ongoing, there’s no current cure. RA is a chronic disease, so it’s best to find multiple ways to reduce discomfort and slow progression.
If you have RA, a healthy diet, stress management, regular exercise, and other remedies can help improve your quality of life.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications and complementary treatments can also help to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. And disease-modifying drugs can ease symptoms, prevent joint damage, and help put RA in remission. Work with your doctor to get a holistic approach specific to you.
Keep reading to learn more about these and other ways to relieve your RA pain.
Getting enough sleep is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for those with RA. A 2018 study suggested that poor sleep quality influences levels of pain and your ability to move.
Try to get at least 8 hours of sleep every night. If you don’t get enough sleep at night, taking a nap during the afternoon may also help.
If you’re experiencing insomnia or if you think you may have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor for diagnosis and a treatment plan.
Regular exercise is a great way to strengthen muscles and increase joint range of motion.
Research from 2014 found that exercise may also improve sleep quality and fatigue in people with RA. Choose exercises that don’t stress your joints.
Brisk walking, swimming, and water aerobics are usually good low-impact choices. Resistance training, such as using resistance bands, also help strengthen your muscles.
Avoid high-impact sports, and take it easy when your joints are tender or severely inflamed.
A physical therapist can also show you how to practice low-impact exercises on your own.
Yoga offers individualized exercises along with potential benefits from breathing and meditation.
Yoga may also reduce RA pain and inflammation and increase quality of life, according to a 2017 research review.
As with other exercises, make any modifications you need to minimize joint stress and avoid pain. You can also try using props if you need help with certain poses.
Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that combines slow, gentle movements with awareness and deep breathing. It exercises the mind, body, and spirit.
Tai chi may also improve symptoms and physical function in people with osteoarthritis, according to a research review from 2013. However, more research is needed specifically for tai chi and RA.
Make sure you take lessons from a knowledgeable instructor, and don’t perform moves that make your pain worse.
Acupuncture is a common treatment in traditional Chinese medicine to help relieve pain. It uses thin needles to stimulate certain points on the body.
Several studies have indicated benefits of acupuncture for RA. A 2018 research review found that acupuncture may improve function and quality of life, and indicated that it’s worth trying for people with RA.
Acupuncture usually has few or no complications. Check that your acupuncturist has a valid license or certification before beginning treatment.
Massage can be done by a trained therapist, a family member, or by yourself, and may improve RA symptoms.
Tell your therapist if you’re experiencing any pain or discomfort during the massage so that they can make adjustments.
Practicing mindfulness may help people with RA relax and cope better with pain and other symptoms. One technique, mindfulness meditation, involves being aware of your thoughts, emotions, and breathing.
A research review from 2018 found that people with RA who practiced mindfulness meditation had improved well-being and health outcomes.
Another 2020 research review indicated that mindfulness interventions may reduce pain intensity, depression, and other RA symptoms. Still, it noted that more research is needed.
Sitting in one position to practice mindfulness meditation may be painful for those with RA. Talk with your instructor about modifications to help you be comfortable.
Studies indicate that support from family, friends, and others with RA can help people manage the condition.
A 2015 study found that attending a monthly peer support group improved quality of life for people with RA. It also increased their knowledge about the condition and their confidence in managing it.
Online groups may also be effective. According to a study from 2020, members in a support group on Facebook shared information with each other and expressed appreciation for the online social support.
The food you eat not only affects your overall health, but may help improve certain medical conditions. In a 2017 study,
A research review from 2017 suggested that diet may slow RA progression and decrease damage to joints. It recommended foods with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, such as:
- raw or lightly cooked vegetables
- spices, including turmeric and ginger
The review also suggested avoiding or limiting processed foods, sugar, and animal products.
Probiotics are bacteria that benefit your health. You can find them in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Probiotic supplements may also be effective for treating RA.
A 2014 study found that taking probiotic supplements daily for 8 weeks decreased disease activity and inflammation. A
However, a 2017 research review found no difference between probiotic supplements and a placebo on RA. More research is needed on the effect of probiotic supplements.
A few studies show that fish oil supplements may help symptoms of RA.
A 2018 research review stated that omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish oil, reduced RA disease activity markers and inflammation markers.
Another review from 2018 also indicated that fish oil supplements may reduce inflammation and delay the need for medication.
Check with your doctor before adding fish oil supplements to your diet, as they can interfere with certain medications. Some people also complain of nausea, bad breath, and a fishy taste in their mouth from taking such supplements.
Some plant oils may reduce pain and stiffness associated with RA. Evening primrose oil contains an essential fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid that may provide some relief.
A 2016 study found that taking evening primrose oil and fish oil may reduce inflammation and disease activity.
According to the
Again, check with your doctor before taking evening primrose oil, as it may interact with some medications. Potential side effects include headache and an upset stomach.
Thunder god vine grows in China and Taiwan and is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Research has indicated that it may be effective for treating RA symptoms.
According to a
A 2018 research review also suggested that thunder god vine supplements may help reduce inflammation. Still, more research is needed on long-term effects and safety.
Talk to your doctor and assess the benefits before trying thunder god vine, as it may have some serious side effects. These can include reduced bone mineral content, infertility, rashes, and hair loss.
Thunder god vine can also be poisonous if it isn’t prepared correctly.
Apply an ice pack to inflamed joints to help ease swelling. Cold can also help to numb pain and relax muscle spasms.
A 2013 research review suggested that cryotherapy, or cold therapy, may reduce pain in people with RA. However, more studies on RA are needed.
If you’re experiencing tight, aching muscles, a relaxing warm bath or hot shower may soothe them. You can also apply a hot towel, a heating pad, or another hot pack to help relax tense muscles and relieve pain and stiffness.
Local heat application reduced pain, stiffness, and disability in people with knee osteoarthritis, according to a 2019 study. Current research is lacking on applying heat for RA.
Ask your doctor or physical therapist for guidance on using heat and cold therapy.
There are many assistive devices that can help you remain mobile. Splints, braces, and neck collars can stabilize and rest inflamed joints.
According to a 2014 research review, wrist splints may reduce pain and swelling in people with RA. It added that they may also slightly improve grip strength, but lower dexterity.
Customized shoes or shoe inserts can provide support for unstable joints in the foot and ankle. Canes and crutches can take weight off joints and make it easier for you to walk.
A 2016 study found that both custom foot orthotics and insoles can reduce pain in people with RA. However, only the custom orthotics also decreased disability among study participants.
Special household tools can make working with your hands easier. For example, grab bars and handrails in bathrooms and on stairs can help you navigate your home safely.
Topical creams, gels, and lotions can be rubbed directly onto the skin to help ease painful joints. As the skin absorbs the ingredients, you may experience temporary relief of minor joint pain.
Topical ointments can also come in spray form or patches. Products that contain capsaicin, salicylates, camphor, or menthol are standard for treating arthritis.
There’s limited current research on using these treatments for RA. Still, a 2017 study found that a gel containing menthol, benzocaine, and procaine hydrochloride resulted in temporary pain relief in people with RA.
Arthritis medications in the form of creams may also be effective.
According to a 2015 study, etoricoxib cream, piroxicam cream, and diclofenac cream reduced pain and swelling for RA, with etoricoxib cream giving the most relief.
Many essential oils have anti-inflammatory and other beneficial properties. Lemongrass oil may specifically help RA.
A study from 2017 found that rubbing lemongrass essential oil onto the skin gradually reduced pain by a small extent. Currently, very few studies exist on lemongrass oil for RA. More research is needed on its effectiveness.
Make sure to dilute essential oils before putting them on your skin. Be cautious when you start using a new essential oil to check that you’re not sensitive or allergic to it.
OTC nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can provide temporary relief from pain and inflammation. NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.
Your doctor can prescribe a more potent dose, if necessary. Prescription NSAIDs include:
- Anaprox (naproxen)
- Celebrex (celecoxib)
- Daypro (oxaprozin)
- Mobic (meloxicam)
- Feldene (piroxicam)
Prescription NSAIDs have a warning that the medications may increase the chance of having a heart attack, stroke, or stomach bleeding.
A 2014 study found that the NSAIDs rofecoxib and diclofenac were associated with a greater risk of heart disease in people with RA. However, the risk from other NSAIDs was low.
While these medications ease pain and discomfort, they don’t change the course of RA.
The following types of medications are also used to treat RA:
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). These help reduce pain and slow the development of joint damage, and are often the first drugs used to treat RA. They include methotrexate (Trexall), sulfasalazine (Azulfidine), hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), and others.
- Biologic response modifiers (or biologic agents). Used in more advanced cases of RA, this class of DMARDs blocks the signals that cause inflammation. They include abatacept (Orencia), tocilizumab (Actemra), and others.
- Oral corticosteroids. These provide fast, short-term symptom relief and are often used alongside DMARDs. Prednisone is an example of a corticosteroid.
Be sure to discuss potential side effects with your doctor when beginning a new medication.
Surgery may be able to correct joint deformities, decrease disability, and help ease pain in people with advanced RA.
There are different options for RA surgery. These include:
- total joint replacement, in which the surgeon removes the damaged section of the joint and inserts a metal or plastic replacement
- synovectomy, where the surgeon removes inflamed joint linings
- joint fusion (or arthrodesis), in which bones are fused together to increase stability
Hip and knee replacements are the most common operations on large joints for RA.
Still, according to a
Surgery is often the next step after other treatments have failed. However, a
There are many approaches to improve quality of life and reduce disease progression with rheumatoid arthritis. Talk with your doctor about which treatments may work best for your condition.
RA is a chronic inflammatory condition that causes stiff and painful joints, often in your hands, wrists, and knees. A rheumatologist diagnoses and treats diseases that affect the bones, joints, and muscles. They may partner with your primary care doctor to monitor RA progression and prescribe treatments, such as lifestyle changes and medication.
An occupational therapist evaluates your ability to do daily activities and meet your goals. They may adjust your tasks and environment or recommend assistive devices to improve quality of life. A physical therapist teaches exercises to strengthen muscles, maintain range of motion, promote joint stability, and reduce injury risk. They use techniques like cold therapy or massage to ease joint pain.
Dry eye is a common RA symptom. RA is also associated with the inflammatory eye disease uveitis, as well as Sjogren’s disease. Left untreated, these conditions can lead to vision loss. It’s important to visit an ophthalmologist or optometrist for regular eye exams. If you have eye pain or other unusual symptoms, see an ophthalmologist for diagnosis and treatment.
Obesity promotes inflammation and adds stress to your joints, which can aggravate RA symptoms and increase the risk of complications. A well-managed diet may help you lose weight, lower inflammation, and support overall health. A registered dietitian can design a sustainable, balanced diet plan.
Sometimes medication and lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to relieve pain and maintain function. Over time, inflammation can lead to lasting joint damage. An orthopedic surgeon may repair or remove damaged tissues, fuse joints together for stability, or replace a joint with a prosthesis (artificial joint).
People with RA have increased risk of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and RA itself can cause lung disease sometimes called rheumatoid lung. All three of these conditions cause breathing difficulties. A pulmonologist diagnoses and treats lung disease. They may prescribe medication and lifestyle changes. They may refer you to a pulmonary rehab for education and support.
RA increases heart disease risk. A cardiologist specializes in diagnosing and treating heart conditions. They may order tests and prescribe treatments, such as lifestyle changes or medication, to protect your heart.
People with RA have increased risk of anxiety and depression. Behavioral health challenges may impact RA symptoms and management. A psychologist, clinical social worker, or licensed counselor treats these conditions with psychotherapy. A psychiatrist can prescribe medication if needed.