What do you do when your joints are on fire?
It’s a question that anyone with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has probably asked themselves at some point. RA is an autoimmune disease that attacks healthy tissue in the body, including the joints—and it can be a real struggle for those who suffer from it.
RA starts off mild and develops over time into something severe, painful, and sometimes life-threatening. One of the most frustrating parts of RA is that it often comes on gradually: people can go months or years without knowing they have it until one day they wake up in pain and can’t put weight on their knee or elbow. And then they have to figure out how to manage this flare-up while also managing their everyday lives.
But there are ways to manage flares! We’ve got some survival tips for managing a RA flare-up coming right up…
1) Review Your Medication
When you get up in the morning, do you automatically reach for the bottle of Advil on your nightstand? Do you pop an Aleve during lunch? If so, you’re not alone—in fact, many people with RA rely on medication to keep them from feeling the full effects of their disease. But sometimes a painkiller doesn’t really take away the underlying issue—the inflammation that’s causing your joints to hurt.
And if you find yourself taking painkillers on a regular basis, it’s important to make sure that they’re actually helping you. For example, there are three different kinds of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), and they all target different parts of your body and work in different ways. One might work great at taking down inflammation in your joints but leave you feeling nauseous. Another might be perfect for keeping away headaches, but it may not have any effect on inflammation or joint pain.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist to help you figure out which kind will work best for your particular symptoms, and don’t be afraid to try different ones until you find one that works!
2) Consider Avoiding Inflammatory Foods
The worst part about a flare-up is that there’s no way to know when it will come, and there’s also no way to predict what will cause it. If you’ve been living with RA for a while and have found some patterns, you’ll probably start to notice when a new flare-up is on its way. Maybe you start feeling more tired than usual and your joints hurt even more than usual. Maybe you get the chills or have trouble sleeping, which are common symptoms of an impending flare-up. In any case, if you have an idea of what might trigger your flares, it can be helpful to avoid those triggers as much as possible.
What do I mean by “avoid inflammatory foods”? Inflammation is one of the main hallmarks of RA, so anything with high levels of inflammation can aggravate an already inflamed body. Inflammatory foods include red meat and high-fat dairy (like butter and cheese), sugar, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and highly processed foods. While these things all contain nutrients in normal amounts, there’s no denying that they can wreak havoc on the body when consumed in excess by someone with RA. So, if you’re experiencing tenderness in your joints or fatigue or other symptoms that could be construed as an RA flare-up, consider avoiding these inflammatory foods.
3) Consider Getting Tested for Sleep Apnea
Most people associate sleep apnea with snoring, but it’s a whole lot more than that. Sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing is disrupted during sleep, typically due to an obstruction of the air flow in and out of your nose or mouth. It’s a disorder that has serious health implications, including heart disease and high blood pressure.
There are two types: obstructive and central sleep apnea, which both involve disruptions in breathing, but they differ in the cause of the disruption. Central sleep apnea happens when there isn’t enough oxygen in the body to signal the brain to breathe; obstructive sleep apnea happens when there is something physically blocking your airway. Both types can be treated with lifestyle changes and oral appliances—but the sad thing is that many people don’t even realize they have it until they’re tested for it.
4) Take Over-The-counter Medication
People with RA often cringe when they hear that word, but there’s no reason to be afraid. For people with RA, it doesn’t mean stopping your life or becoming dependent on addictive drugs—it can actually be just what you need to feel like yourself again. The purpose of over-the-counter medication is to relieve the symptoms of your flare-up for a few days or weeks, allowing you time to get back on track and start treating your condition properly (more on that later). Once you’ve gotten through the acute phase of your flare-up, these medications are usually discontinued.
5) Try Anti-Inflammatory Supplements
We know that pain is a big part of what makes managing an RA flare-up so difficult—but there are things you can do to make it easier on yourself. One of the most effective ways to relieve pain is by taking anti-inflammatory supplements, which reduce swelling and provide relief from joint stiffness. When your joints are inflamed, they’re hot, swollen, and tender—all of which make it difficult to move around. Anti-inflammatory supplements can help your body calm down and relax the muscles.
Tylenol and Ibuprofen are two types of over-the-counter medications that help reduce inflammation: Tylenol (acetaminophen) is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), while ibuprofen is an NSAID as well. When you’re suffering from arthritis or any other kind of inflammation in your joints, taking one or both of these medications can provide some much-needed relief.
One thing to note about NSAIDs: if you have some kind of stomach condition or ulcer, then this isn’t the best option for you. These medications can cause ulcers in people with pre-existing conditions and sometimes even in those without them!
6) Exercise Regularly
For better or worse, exercise can have a big effect on how well you recover from a flare-up, but not always in the way you’d expect. A lot of people with RA consider themselves “non-exercisers” because it hurts too much to move around. But when you’re in the middle of a flare-up, that’s simply not an option! You have to keep moving, and the more you do so without aggravating your joints, the faster you’ll recover.
What kind of exercise can be most helpful? The answer is pretty straightforward: anything that gets your heart rate up! Walking is often the best place to start since it doesn’t put pressure on your joints like running or cycling might. But once you’ve built up your endurance, some other activities through which you can get a good workout include swimming and biking. You just have to keep doing whatever feels comfortable and rewarding while avoiding anything that makes things worse.