Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition that occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your joints. This results in the following experiences that can interfere with your daily activities:

  • pain
  • redness or discoloration
  • inflammation

Treatment for RA is important for improving your symptoms, as well as protecting your joints and organs from permanent injuries.

Like other autoimmune conditions, RA is a complex disease. However, there are things you can do to help manage the various aspects of RA that can help improve your quality of life.

1. RA can be an invisible disease in the early stages that you may need to explain to loved ones

RA is caused by underlying inflammation, which can affect your physical and emotional health such as:

  • pain
  • fatigue
  • stiffness

It’s important to be explicit about your condition with friends and loved ones because they may not be able to “see” what you’re going through.

By explaining your condition and your needs, they may also be better able to help support you.

2. RA may affect you differently as you age

A 2017 research review showed that while RA is most common in women ages 25 to 45, the condition can develop in males and females of all ages.

Although RA is primarily characterized by pain and inflammation in your joints, you may develop different levels of progression as you get older —such changes may be more significant if you are originally diagnosed with RA in your 20s or 30s.

For example, you may find that you:

  • need more time to complete daily tasks due to fatigue
  • tend to experience forgetfulness more often
  • need more sleep, perhaps by going to bed earlier than you used to
  • require more rest after a day out
  • are losing weight, even if you’re not trying to

3. It’s possible to have both RA and lupus at the same time

Lupus is another type of autoimmune condition and it is possible to have RA and lupus symptoms occur together, a so-called overlap syndrome. Both conditions have similar joint symptoms, but lupus can also cause:

  • skin rashes or ulcers
  • kidney problems
  • decreased blood cells and platelets

Both RA and lupus are inflammation-based, so the treatments may be similar.

However, it’s possible for RA symptoms to improve and for lupus to flare up. It’s important to schedule appointments with your doctor for regular exams and blood work, as lupus may be more difficult to identify.

4. It’s also possible to have fibromyalgia

Both fibromyalgia and RA have similar symptoms, including fatigue and pain. However, RA also causes joint pain and inflammation and can be treated with different classes of medications.

Fibromyalgia, on the other hand, may cause constant pain. Also, while RA is a progressive autoimmune condition, fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that doesn’t necessarily worsen over time.

Having RA can increase your risk of developing fibromyalgia too. According to the Arthritis Foundation, researchers estimate that more than 20 to 30 percent of people have fibromyalgia and RA together.

Other symptoms of fibromyalgia include:

While there’s no cure for fibromyalgia, you may help manage your symptoms by:

  • getting enough deep sleep
  • managing stress
  • relaxation techniques such as meditation

5. Exercise can help with pain management

Regular exercise helps improve your overall health and well-being, but it can be difficult getting started when you have RA-related pain.

However, exercise may help with overall pain management when living with RA — especially once you’re on a routine.

Ask your doctor for help if you’re new to exercise. You may be able to start with walking every day, and then increase the distance and speed on a gradual basis.

Resistance and flexibility exercises, such as yoga and tai chi, may also help alleviate RA pain and increase mobility.

6. Rest is just as important as exercise

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases recommends exercising regularly but resting more when your RA flares up.

Too much exercise — especially during RA flare-ups — may increase inflammation and make your symptoms worse. Regular rest can also lessen fatigue.

Your best bet is to listen to your body. You might consider taking a rest day or replacing your workout with gentle yoga stretches instead if you’re:

  • feeling run down
  • feeling stiff
  • having too much pain

7. Fatigue and ‘brain fog’ are real, but there are ways to manage it

Fatigue is a common symptom of RA, and it may also indicate a new flare-up.

With RA fatigue, you may feel exhausted and weak during the day, but may not necessarily feel sleepy. Excessive fatigue can also make it more difficult to concentrate or recall information, two symptoms of “brain fog.”

While fatigue may ease with treatment, it’s possible to experience this symptom over the long term. You can help fight fatigue and brain fog by:

  • sticking with a regular sleep schedule at night
  • getting enough exercise during the day
  • eating a balanced diet

8. Stress management is crucial

Stress can increase your risk of developing an RA flare-up, and it may also worsen other conditions you have such as fibromyalgia.

Regular exercise and relaxation techniques can help manage your stress and keep inflammation down. It’s important to take time out of each day for yourself, whether it’s to:

  • take a short walk
  • meditate
  • listen to relaxing music

9. Know when to seek help from a mental health professional

While occasional stress from RA is typical, the following prolonged experiences could indicate a mental health condition:

  • anger
  • fear
  • hopelessness
  • sadness

If you don’t feel like yourself and have lost interest in your favorite activities you normally enjoy, talk with a mental health professional for help.

10. Group support can help

Sometimes you need support from others outside your friends and family that may share the same experiences as you.

Consider reaching out to an RA support group — online or in person — to help. Talking with others can also improve your mental health by making you feel less isolated.

11. Weight management may reduce symptoms and disease progression

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, obesity may increase the risk of experiencing RA progression. If needed, losing weight may help decrease RA progression and lessen your symptoms.

Weight loss can also help alleviate pain in certain joints, particularly your:

  • back
  • hips
  • knees

Talk with your doctor about how a gradual weight loss plan may help.

12. It’s also important to protect your heart health with RA

RA’s inflammatory effects can spread to internal organs, including your heart and lungs. Periodic evaluation of these organs must be a part of your RA management.

In fact, according to the Arthritis Foundation, heart disease is the number one cause of death in people who have RA. Aside from managing your RA, you can do other things to help lower your risk of heart disease, such as:

  • getting your blood pressure to a stable level
  • reducing your cholesterol levels
  • adding cardiovascular exercises to your fitness routine
  • eating a low fat diet
  • trying to quit smoking

13. Remission is possible

The goal of RA treatment is to help relieve your symptoms while stopping the progression of this condition.

An early RA diagnosis — and subsequent treatment with disease-modifying medications — may result in remission. This may be possible within the first few months of treatment.

When RA is in remission, this means that you have fewer affected joints, along with reduced pain and inflammation.

Your doctor will need to carefully monitor your condition during remission and adjust your medication accordingly.

Disease-modifying medications help treat RA and prevent its progression, but your dosage may need to be adjusted from time to time.

It’s important to keep track of your symptoms and report any new flare-ups to your doctor so they may adjust your medication as soon as possible, if needed.

Symptoms of an RA flare-up may include:

  • increased pain and stiffness in your joints
  • visible redness or discoloration
  • increased fatigue following your regular activities
  • inability to complete your daily activities
  • increased stress

You should also talk with your doctor if your RA symptoms aren’t improving, despite taking medications. Any increases in pain or changes in your quality of life should also be reported.

While joint pain and stiffness is a key characteristic of RA, this isn’t the only symptom you have to manage. RA can affect you in many other ways including your:

  • energy levels
  • mental health
  • heart health

Medications may help manage RA symptoms and prevent the condition’s progression, but daily lifestyle changes can also help complement your treatment.

Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen or don’t improve despite such lifestyle modifications.