About rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease. It usually begins in the small joints in the hands and feet. RA causes pain, stiffness, and swelling. It also reduces mobility and flexibility in the affected joints.

As RA advances, these symptoms can spread to other areas, including the:

  • hips
  • shoulders
  • ankles
  • elbows
  • wrists
  • ankles

Chronic pain is one of the most common features of RA. It doesn’t just involve the disease-affected joints. The more advanced the disease, the more likely you are to experience chronic pain in various areas of your body.

For example, headaches can be caused by arthritis affecting the first three vertebrae in the spine. Bone spurs can form in damaged joints, leading to extra friction and pain.

RA comes in many forms. You may need more than one strategy for managing your RA-related pain.

A variety of treatments can help you find relief from chronic pain.

Prescription drugs

The first step toward relieving chronic pain from RA is relieving the inflammation that causes it. This is why the front-line treatment for RA almost always includes prescription anti-inflammatory drugs called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs

For acute, or “right now” pain, OTC pain relievers such as ibuprofen or naproxen are the ideal choice.

These drugs can help in multiple ways, like relieving inflammation and all types of pain, from headaches and joint pain to bone spurs.

Exercise

You’ve probably noticed that pain and stiffness are worse when you’ve been inactive for long periods of time. Gentle, low-impact exercise can help loosen stiff joints, strengthen surrounding muscles, and combat pain naturally.

Stretching

Daily stretching can improve circulation and flexibility, as well as reduce pain.

Yoga positions can even be modified according to your abilities and limitations. Just be sure that you stretch gently and not to the point where you feel pain.

Take a load off

If you have pain when walking, a cane or walker can make a huge difference. These devices can offset a significant portion of your body weight, keeping that strain off of affected joints.

Moist heat

Relaxing in a warm bath or soaking hands and feet in warm water can really help ease RA pain.

Moist heating pads provide direct, penetrating heat on any part of the body. You can find them at many drugstores. Also, a paraffin wax treatment from a local salon or spa may provide relief for some people.

Lose weight

Even being just a little overweight can add extra strain on already stressed joints. Not only will losing weight help relieve pain in your joints, it’ll also reduce fatigue. It may even motivate or encourage you to exercise.

Alternative therapies

If you’re interested in trying alternative therapies for your chronic pain, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about these options:

  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). TENS uses low-voltage electricity to interfere with how your nerves process pain.
  • Acupuncture involves inserting tiny needles into the skin near nerve endings. This therapy has been used for centuries to manage all types of pain.
  • Massage can reduce pain and improve your range of motion. You can even learn self-massage techniques to perform on yourself at home.

If a certain activity hurts, then it’s probably best to avoid it. This doesn’t mean you have to put your whole life on hold. Take time to think about small, everyday changes you can make in your routine to be kinder to your painful joints.

For instance, consider the following:

  • Have lever-style door handles installed in your home to replace traditional doorknobs.
  • Slide a heavy object instead of lifting it.
  • Hold items in the palms of your hands, rather than gripping them with your fingers.

These and other small adjustments can add up to less pain for you.

If chronic pain is interfering with your life, you’re not alone. Be sure to talk to your healthcare providers about the various medical and nonmedical ways you can reduce your pain and get back to living.