When you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), it can feel like your body is fighting against you. In a sense, it is. Your immune system’s attack on your joints is what causes the pain and swelling you experience.
Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can go a long way toward helping you manage RA symptoms. But medication isn’t the only way to relieve pain. Exercise, relaxation methods, and other mind-body techniques can also be effective tools to help control your condition.
Try these eight approaches to get a better handle on your RA pain.
1. Move your body
Though you might be inclined to rest your achy joints, exercise is one of the best things you can do to relieve RA pain. Activity keeps you flexible, strengthens your muscles, and helps you to lose extra weight that’s putting pressure on your joints.
The ideal workout program for RA includes a mix of aerobics, strength training, and stretching. Safe and effective exercise choices for sore joints include:
- tai chi
- bike riding
Check with your doctor before you start any new program. Ask if the exercises you plan to do are safe for your joints.
Consider asking a physical therapist to walk you through your routine the first time. Have the therapist show you how to do each exercise correctly, so you don’t hurt yourself.
Remember to warm up before every workout. Walk or do active stretches for about 5 to 10 minutes to get your blood flowing and ready your muscles. If any movement hurts your joints, stop what you’re doing.
2. Breathe deeply
Something as simple as breathing might not seem like an effective arthritis treatment. But deep breathing can actually help relieve stress and relax your body.
To practice deep breathing:
- Find a quiet, comfortable spot to sit.
- Close your eyes.
- Place your hand on your belly.
- Breathe in, feeling your belly expand under your hand.
- Breathe out, feeling your belly pull back toward your spine.
- Continue to breathe in and out deeply for about five minutes, or until you feel calm.
Practice this technique several times every day.
Take deep breathing one step further for an even greater sense of calm. When you meditate, you breathe deeply while focusing your mind on a word or phrase, an object, a body part, or your breath.
Studies find this mind-body practice reduces pain and improves quality of life in people with arthritis.
4. Strike a pose
Yoga also takes deep breathing to another level by adding movement. In yoga, you put your body through a series of poses while you breathe.
Practicing yoga regularly keeps your joints flexible and strengthens the muscles that support them.
Research finds that yoga:
- improves RA pain
- reduces disability
- increases energy
- improves grip strength
If you have specific joints that are inflamed, discuss this with your yoga instructor. They can suggest alternative positions to help you avoid injury.
5. Creatively visualize
Close your eyes. Now, imagine yourself running through the sand. Hear the sound of the waves. Feel the ocean splashing against your heels. The farther you run, the stronger you feel, and the more your pain becomes a distant memory.
Escaping into an imagined scenario like this one is a technique called creative visualization. It uses the power of your mind to help control your pain.
Though it might seem a little “out there,” creative visualization has some evidence to back it up. Studies show that the practice lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also improves pain and disability, and it reduces people’s reliance on pain-relieving drugs.
6. Try acupuncture
Sticking needles into your already sore body might not sound like the best idea. But acupuncture can help relieve joint pain from RA.
The practice has been around for thousands of years. It works by stimulating various pressure points throughout the body. One way acupuncture helps with pain is by triggering the release of natural painkillers called endorphins.
Though this treatment is generally safe, in rare cases it can cause infections or nerve damage. That’s why it’s important to find a licensed and experienced practitioner.
7. Relax your muscles
Holding tension in your muscles can worsen the pain you already feel. A technique called progressive muscle relaxation can loosen muscle tension and help you feel more relaxed all over.
To practice progressive muscle relaxation:
- Sit or lie in a comfortable position, with your eyes closed.
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Start at the top of your body and move downward.
- Tense the muscles of your face, mouth, and jaw. Then release these muscles and breathe deeply.
- Work your way down your body, tensing and releasing one muscle group at a time — your shoulders, back, arms, hands, stomach, buttocks, legs, and toes.
8. Get support
Living with a chronic condition can make you feel very alone. Yet you’re far from on your own. More than 1.3 million Americans are dealing with joint pain and swelling on a daily basis.
You can meet other people with RA by joining a support group. During meetings, you’ll get emotional reinforcement and learn new ways to cope with your condition.
You can find an RA support group through a hospital in your area, or by contacting an organization like the Arthritis Foundation. Many groups are also available online.
Living with a chronic, painful condition like RA can be overwhelming. Take time each day to relax and focus on yourself. Practicing mind-body techniques can help release tight muscles, ease pain, and improve your quality of life.