Self-Care for RA

Rheumatoid arthritis patients play a key role in treatment

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

Even though your doctor can give you drugs and information to treat rheumatoid arthritis, you must take action yourself to control the disease. Taking part in your own care can help you live well with rheumatoid arthritis.

There are many steps you can take on your own to manage rheumatoid arthritis. Some steps are easy and lead to quick benefits, while others call for long-term changes to your lifestyle.

Some of the following actions may improve your health. Others reduce the pain. Some may even change the way you think about your pain.

All of them are meant to make your life with rheumatoid arthritis easier.

Learn the signs of rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease, meaning it can last for years. You do not necessarily have arthritis if a joint has hurt for a day or two. But if you have felt pain, stiffness or swelling around a joint for over two weeks, you should see your doctor.

A doctor can look at your symptoms and run tests to diagnose your arthritis. Because there are so many types of arthritis, your doctor may need to run a number of tests to tell you the type you have. These tests may include:

  • antinuclear antibody tests
  • joint fluid tests
  • erythrocyte sedimentation tests

It is important to get the right diagnosis. If you doctor knows the type of arthritis you have, you are more likely to get the type of treatment you need.

Start treatment early

The sooner you get diagnosed, the sooner you can start treatment. And the sooner you start treatment, the better. If you start treatment early, you may have better chances of reducing pain and permanent joint damage.

Treating rheumatoid arthritis involves more than the drugs your doctor prescribes. You may also need to lose weight, exercise more, and take other steps to protect and soothe your joints.

Talk with your doctor early to start treatment as soon as possible.

Take care of your joints

Try not to stress or overuse your joints. You can seriously damage your joints from lifting more than you can handle or putting too much pressure on affected joints.

There are many devices that can make daily tasks easier on your joints. These include jar openers, reachers and hand rails among other devices.

Being overweight also can put stress on your joints. By shedding pounds, you can reduce damaging pressure.

Ask your doctor what you can do to avoid putting too much stress on your joints.

Start moving and stay moving

Physical activity is a key part of managing rheumatoid arthritis. Through exercise, you can lessen pain, increase joint movement and reduce fatigue. Exercise also can make you feel better in general.

Most workouts for arthritis involve three types of exercise: flexibility exercises, aerobic exercises and strengthening exercises. With a well-rounded exercises plan, you can increase your range of motion, boost your endurance and build muscle to support joints.

Experts recommend that adults with rheumatoid arthritis do no less than 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (e.g. brisk walking) each week. You also can do more intense exercise, but ask your doctor first, as you can overwork your joints.

There are many physical activities that can be good for arthritis. By working with your doctor and physical therapist, you can find the activities that are right for you.

Physical activities for arthritis include:

  • stretching
  • walking
  • running
  • swimming
  • biking
  • hiking
  • aerobic dancing
  • lifting weights
  • body-weight exercises like squats, wall sits or lunges

Make exercise fun! Your arthritis workouts do not have to be work. Sign up for a class like Tai Chi, dancing or yoga. Even gardening or walking to the grocery store can be activities to keep your joints active and strong.

Lose weight

Being overweight or obese puts pressure on your joints that can speed up joint damage and increase pain. Losing weight not only relieves this pressure, but may reduce your risk of other complications.

Regular exercise and a healthy diet are key to reaching a healthy weight.

Eat Healthy

A healthy diet can do more than help you lose weight. Certain foods can reduce the risk of complications related to rheumatoid arthritis.

Eating a diet rich in calcium can protect your bone health. Since rheumatoid arthritis has been shown to speed up bone loss, some patients are told to increase their intake of calcium.

Good sources of calcium include:

  • milk
  • yogurt
  • cheese
  • other dairy products
  • orange juice with added calcium
  • broccoli
  • kale
  • salmon with bones

Some research has shown that folic acid can be good for patients taking a common arthritis drug called methotrexate (sold as Rheumatrex and Trexall). Folic acid may reduce some of the side effects associated with methotrexate. Oranges and other citrus fruits are good sources of folic acid.

Learn your drug options and how to take your drugs

In the past decade, there have been large advances in the drug treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Patients usually start out on disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs). When DMARDs fail, the second line of treatment often involves a newer, powerful class of drugs called biologics. TNF inhibitors are a type of biologic drug.

Every rheumatoid arthritis patient is different. As such, not all patients will have the same treatment. Make sure you know your drug dosages, side effects and possible dangers of combining your arthritis drugs with other medications.

If your drug treatment does not seem to be working, talk to your doctor before giving it up. In some cases, it can take weeks or months to notice a change.

Work with your doctor and keep an open dialogue to find which drugs work best for you.


Find activities that help you relax. Mental and physical stress can make the pain of rheumatoid arthritis even worse. Reducing theses stresses can take your mind off your disease, lessen pain and improve daily joint function.

Here are some suggestions to help relieve stress:

Take a warm bath to relieve muscle tension

  • Get a massage to reduce pain and stiffness, increase circulation, boost your energy, relieve mental stress and improve sleep
  • Listen to soothing tunes, such as classical music, to take your mind off the pain and lighten your mood
  • Read, watch or listen to something funny to laugh; laughing can reduce mental stress, relax muscles and even boost your immune system

Use heat and cold

Applying heat to muscles and joints can relieve pain and relax tension. You can use hot packs or sit in warm water.

Cold also can relieve pain. You can put a cold pack of ice or frozen vegetables on painful areas to dull the pain or reduce muscle spasms. Some patients even enjoy ice baths.

Talk with your doctor, family and friends

A strong patient-doctor relationship is crucial to successfully treating rheumatoid arthritis. Be open with your doctor about your lifestyle habits and the medications you take. In order to prevent side effects or bad reactions, your doctor needs to know which prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs and supplements you are taking.

If you feel uncomfortable with your doctor, it may be time to find a new one.

It also can help to tell someone you know about your condition. Talking to your co-workers, friends or family members about rheumatoid arthritis may give them a better understanding of your condition and situation. Sharing your feelings can take a weight off your shoulders and let others know how arthritis impacts your day-to-day life.

Quit smoking

Smoking is bad for you, whether you have rheumatoid arthritis or not. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, smoking can increase your risk of many complications. The bad habit can make arthritis drugs less effective and lengthen recovery from surgery.

If you quit smoking today, you have a better chance of improvement tomorrow.

Review Date: 
September 5, 2012