Although research into medications to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is ongoing, there’s no current cure for this condition. Still, a healthy diet, proper rest, stress management, and regular exercise can help improve your quality of life. Over-the-counter medications and complementary treatments can also help to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. And disease-modifying drugs can ease symptoms, prevent joint damage, or help put RA in remission.
Keep reading to find out 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. Try to get at least eight hours of sleep every night. Taking a nap during the afternoon, if you don't get enough sleep at night, can also help.
If your sleep is being negatively affected because you’re feeling overly stressed, guided imagery, deep breathing exercises, and muscle relaxation exercises can help you relax. Hypnosis, meditation, and massage may also help ease stress and tension.
If you’re dealing with insomnia, make sure to talk with your doctor, but also try one of these smartphone apps to help you get to sleep faster at night. If you think you may suffer from sleep apnea, talk to your doctor for diagnosis and a treatment plan.
Regular exercise is a great way to fight fatigue, strengthen muscles, and increase joint range of motion. Gentle stretching, walking, swimming, and water aerobics are usually good low-impact choices. Avoid high-impact sports and take it easy when joints are tender or severely inflamed.
If necessary, ask your doctor to recommend exercises. A physical therapist can also show you the proper way to exercise on your own.
Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that combines slow, gentle movements with awareness and deep breathing. It exercises the mind, body, and spirit. One study suggests that tai chi may improve function in those with RA.
Make sure you take lessons from a knowledgeable instructor, and don’t perform moves that make your pain worse.
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. For best results, look for products that contain capsaicin, salicylates, camphor, or menthol.
A few studies show that fish oil supplements may help reduce pain and stiffness due to RA.
Check with your doctor before adding fish oil supplements to your diet, as they can interfere with certain medications and increase the likelihood of bruising or bleeding. Some people also complain of nausea, belching, and a fishy taste in their mouth.
Some plant oils are thought to reduce pain and morning stiffness associated with RA. Evening primrose oil contains an essential fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid and may provide some relief.
However, studies regarding the effectiveness of primrose oil are inconclusive.
Again, check with your doctor before taking plant oils, as some can damage your liver or interfere with medications. Potential side effects include headache, gas, diarrhea, and nausea.
Apply an ice pack to inflamed joints to help ease swelling. Cold can also help to numb pain and relax muscle spasms.
If you’re experiencing tight, aching muscles, a relaxing warm bath or hot shower can soothe them. You can also apply a hot towel, a heating pad, or other hot pack to help relax tense muscles and relieve pain and stiffness.
Ask your doctor or physical therapist for guidance using heat and coldtherapy.
Aspirin or over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can provide temporary relief of pain and inflammation. NSAIDs include ibuprofen and naproxen.
Your doctor can prescribe a more potent dose, if necessary. Prescription NSAIDs include:
- Anaprox (naproxen sodium)
- Celebrex (celecoxib)
- Daypro (oxaprozin)
- Disalcid (salsalate)
- Feldene (piroxicam)
All prescription NSAIDs have a warning that the medications may increase the chance of having a heart attack, stroke, or stomach bleeding. While these medications ease pain and discomfort, they don’t change the course of RA.
The following medications are also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis:
- hydroxychloroquine: may take up to three months to take effect
- methotrexate: suppresses the immune system
- sulfasalazine: suppresses the immune response
- minocycline: used for its anti-inflammatory properties and blocks metalloproteinases
- oral corticosteroids: fast, short-term symptom relief
There’s a variety of assistive devices that can help you remain mobile. Splints, braces, and neck collars can stabilize and rest inflamed joints. 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.
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.
Reconstructive surgery can repair damage to tendons and relieve pressure on nerves. A procedure called synovectomy removes inflamed joint linings.
For more information on easing RA pain, check out Healthline’s Rheumatoid Arthritis topic center.