Did you know that rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is actually an autoimmune disease? While there are over 100 different types of arthritis that result in joint pain and inflammation, rheumatoid arthritis is one unique case in which the body mistakes the joints for a foreign substance and actually attacks them instead of protecting them.
More than 13 million people in the U.S. suffer from RA, 75% of whom are women. Most often RA manifests in smaller joints in the hands and feet, however, in rare cases even your eyes, skin, heart, kidneys, or lungs can be affected. RA is characterized by myriad symptoms including:
- Pain, tenderness, warmth of joints
- Joint stiffness and swelling
- Limited range of motion
- Loss of energy and fatigue
- Low-grade fevers
- Weight loss and diminished appetite
- Growth of rheumatoid nodules under the skin
While RA was once thought to be one of the most debilitating form of arthritis, especially because it can affect your mobility and ability to use your hands, big strides have been made in the scientific and medical communities in understanding and treating the disease.
If you suffer from RA, don’t miss this quick guide to safely managing it at home:
Exercise – while extra movement may seem like the opposite of what you want to do to relieve joint pain, it actually plays a critical role maintaining your range of motion. In addition to loosening joints with movement, low-impact exercises like swimming and cycling also strengthen adjacent muscles (i.e. in the forearm and calf) which can help offload some of the stress your joints experience. Be careful to scale back physical activity, however, that may exacerbate a flare-up.
Compression – a compression glove(s) does wonders for fighting inflammation associated with arthritis and improves hand mobility by easing joint pain. Tight, breathable materials that gently squeeze the tissues around your joints can improve blood flow and move pooled fluids (lactic acid, white blood cells, etc.) away from the area of tenderness and swelling. Compression socks and sleeves are also available for joints around the wrist, elbow, and feet.
Assistive Devices – you may find it difficult to complete even simple tasks like picking things up or getting dressed when an RA flare-up hurts your hands. Assistive devices that offer wider grip surfaces and ease-of-use functionality can help; these include reacher grabbers, button hooks, saw-handle utensils, and wide button TV remotes. Free-standing virtual assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home can also help people with limited hand use complete tasks like making grocery lists, checking email, turning on music, etc.
Anti-inflammatories – you can fight inflammation in the body in a variety of ways including taking medicine or opting for natural remedies. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium may be recommended by your doctor. Foods like ginger, Boswellia Serrata, and turmeric have also been shown to offer pain-relieving anti-inflammatory benefits.
Topical aids – for more temporary pain relief, topical aids with naturally-occurring ingredients like arnica, menthol, camphor, or capsaicin can be inexpensive alternatives to medicine. Topical aids may come in the form of gels, creams, salves, ointments, lotions, and even sprays and can be found online or in your local pharmacy.
Ice and heat therapy – applying a cold pack to a swollen and tender hand can help to reduce inflammation and numb nerve endings to provide short-term pain relief. Application of a heating pad (or taking a warm bath) on the other hand, can help soothe painful and stiff joints, increase blood flow, and relax tense muscles to ease up on the adjacent joint strain.
Pharmacological solutions like corticosteroids, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), and biologic response modifiers may help to slow the progression of the disease. And surgery to correct joint deformities and repair tendons can also help alleviate chronic pain associated with RA.
Since there is no cure for RA, the key to managing it comes down to incorporating a variety of tools and remedies at home into your existing medicine schedule. Always speak with your doctor about your flare-ups and the best way to address them (i.e. what exercises should you avoid? Are there guidelines for using cold and hot packs?).