Five self-help tips for rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis. General practitioner examining a patient's hand for signs of rheumatoid arthritis. This condition is cause
Rheumatoid arthritis. General practitioner examining a patient's hand for signs of rheumatoid arthritis. This condition is cause

Sometimes the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis will flare up due to illness or stress, but often it can come on without any obvious cause. While it's important to take the advice of your doctor, and take medications as prescribed, there are some self-help tips you can try.

See also: Foods that help fight inflammation

See also: Arthritis - should you treat the pain with heat or cold?

1. Exercise – but don't overdo it
Exercise too much and it can make swollen joints worse – but if you don't move your joints, they'll stiffen up and your muscles will deteriorate. The trick is to find a healthy balance of exercise and rest.

As a general rule, stick to low-impact activities such as walking, cycling and swimming as these won't put a strain on your joints. It can be tempting to do more when you're having a good day, but be careful not to overdo it – especially if it's something you haven't done in a long time, such as painting and decorating or gardening.

There are specific strengthening exercises you can do to build up your muscles, which in turn will help support your joints. Ask your physiotherapist to demonstrate. You can also do isometric exercises that workout the muscle without moving the joint – a qualified yoga instructor may be able to help, or again ask your physiotherapist.

Whatever form of exercise you choose, be sure to always warm up properly and wear footwear with shock-absorbing soles. If something hurts or causes your joints to become warm and swollen, stop and rest – or think about finding an alternative exercise.

2. Watch what you eat
A nutritious diet is important for your overall health and to keep your weight in check. Carrying too many extra pounds puts extra strain on your back, hips, knees and feet. At the same time, being underweight can be a problem as your body needs the right nutrients and fuel to help you combat the condition.

Aim to eat a balanced diet, cutting back on fat, sugar and processed foods, and filling up with wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, oily fish and dairy. Studies show that regularly taking a fish oil supplement can help to lesson symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Getting enough calcium is also important, as having rheumatoid arthritis can put you at increased risk of osteoporosis.

Some people swear by eliminating certain foods from their diets, such as tomatoes and citrus fruits, while others find that wheat or dairy is a trigger. As everyone is different, keep a food diary noting down your symptoms over two weeks. If you think a particular food may be causing your symptoms to worsen, speak to your nurse specialist or GP.

- How diet affects arthritis and what to eat and avoid

3. Get enough sleep
It's a catch-22 situation. Having rheumatoid arthritis can make it hard to sleep – yet not getting enough rest can make your symptoms worse. If you have problems falling asleep, try taking painkillers and have a warm bath to soothe stiff joints.

Your mattress should be supportive and comfortable. If you wake with stiff shoulders or your neck is sore, try experimenting with different pillows. Avoid eating a big meal before bedtime. If you need a snack, have a handful of almonds or a banana. Almonds are an excellent source of magnesium, which is a natural muscle relaxant and contains anti-stress properties. Bananas also contain magnesium, along with potassium and tryptophan – the latter of which is the precursor to the two neurotransmitters, serotonin and melatonin, which promote sleep.

Avoid caffeine, don't smoke, and don't have alcohol close to bed time. Having a few drinks may help you drop off, but alcohol diminishes the quality of your sleep and is likely to make you feel rough the next day. Gentle stretching is fine before bed, but avoid exercising late in the evening as it can keep you awake.

If your insomnia is getting worse or is an on-going problem, speak to your GP or nurse specialist who may prescribe sleeping tablets for long-term use.

- Living with arthritis: How to improve your sleep

4. Try an alternative therapy
Many people find that alternative therapies can help. While there isn't always evidence to show that they are effective at helping people with rheumatoid arthritis, it's a question of thinking about the risks and benefits and trying them out for yourself.

Hydrotherapy and massage has proven to be affective for many people, and there's also some evidence to suggest that acupuncture can help relieve some of the pain symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

Arthritis pain can lead to stress, and stress can make arthritis pain flare up. Research has shown that a half-hour massage can lower the body's levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can increase inflammatory response. Even better, a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people with knee arthritis who had a Swedish massage once or twice a week reported less pain and had more flexibility and range of motion after a few months. Can't afford massages? Get more cuddles. A firm hug has been shown to reduce levels of stress hormones in the body.

Studies also suggest that taking supplements can help – some of the most beneficial include fish oil in capsule form, borage seed oil and evening primrose oil.

If you want to go down the alternative route, it's important to talk to your health professional first, particularly if you decide to take herbal remedies, as some can interact with prescribed medications. Whichever therapy you choose, check that the therapist is qualified and registered with an appropriate body and is fully insured.

- Five supplements proven to be most effective at treating symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis

5. Invest in gadgets that support and protect your joints
Protecting your joints from unnecessary strain is one of the best preventive measures you can take. Ask to speak to an occupational therapist or your nurse specialist about simple aids and gadgets you can use to make life easier. Sometimes, a small adaption to the way you do things can make a big difference.

- Six arthritis-friendly gadgets to make your life easier