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Coping with rheumatoid arthritis

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you know that pain, stiffness and fatigue can make it hard to get out of bed some days. Since the disease has no cure, keeping a positive attitude can be a challenge. But taking good care of yourself and working with your doctor can ease your discomfort and keep you going strong.

RA: The facts

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a condition that causes chronic inflammation of the joints, leading to severe pain, swelling and stiffness as well as to joint deformities.

Initially, people with RA typically feel pain in the wrist, hand, foot and knee joints on both sides of their bodies. They may eventually develop pain in the joints of their shoulders, neck, jaw and hips. RA varies from person to person. Some sufferers find the disease disappears after a few months or a year or two, some experience generally mild symptoms with occasional flare-ups when symptoms worsen and some suffer long-lasting and constant pain.

Additional symptoms of RA include:

  • general joint and muscle stiffness, especially after rest
  • decreased muscle strength and joint flexibility
  • fatigue and low-grade fever
  • joint deformities
  • rheumatoid nodules (lumps, usually painless, that form under the skin)
  • inflammation of tear and salivary glands, the lungs, heart and lung linings and, in rare instances, blood vessels

Relieving the pain

If you suffer from RA, regular, moderate exercise and a nutritious diet may help enhance your sense of well-being. Walking or other aerobic activities plus exercise that involves stretching your joints through a full range of motion help control RA pain by improving blood flow, maintaining flexibility and controlling your weight (excess pounds can stress joints).

Hot baths and showers can warm and relax painful muscles and joints, while cold packs can numb aching joints during flare-ups. Relaxation techniques, including guided imagery and deep breathing—along with adequate rest and relaxation—can also make it easier for you to cope.

Aspirin, ibuprofen and prescription anti-inflammatories or disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs may help relieve RA. Steroids may also slow joint damage. Many people who have severe pain and lose mobility find themselves enjoying an active life again after joint-replacement or joint-fusion surgery. Talk with your doctor about what you can do.