Kelly Clayton usually sets her alarm clock so she's got an extra 45 minutes to get ready for her day. No, she's not a habitual snooze-button presser. Clayton, a 37-year-old PhD student in Rockton, IL, has rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The early wake-up is part of her strategy to curb the extra stiffness and pain that often hits her in the morning.
It's a common problem for people with RA, says Nathan Wei, MD, a rheumatologist at the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, MD. Your joints stiffen overnight while you were lying still in bed.
You'll get your day off to a good start if you follow a smart early-bird routine.
Give Yourself Extra Time
"I'll purposely set my alarm early so I have that time in the morning," Clayton says. The extra padding gives her joints a chance to warm up before she eases out of bed.
Figure out how long it typically takes for you to loosen up and get moving in the morning, then set your alarm clock to give yourself the margin you need.
Apply Gentle Heat
For the first half hour, Clayton stays in bed, where she can soak up the warmth of an electric mattress pad. "It seems to help, particularly in the morning," she says. "I use it year-round. Even if it's 90 degrees in the summer, I'll use it on a low setting."
You can try other methods, too. Wei suggests you put a heating pad on your joints or toss your clothes in a warm dryer before you get dressed.
It's OK to multitask. Clayton usually grabs her phone so she can read the news while she loosens up. At night, place something on your nightstand that you can easily reach for in the morning, like a book, phone, or tablet.
Take a Hot Shower
After a 30-minute stint in bed, Clayton heads to the bathroom for a hot shower. On a tough day, she may follow it with a 20-minute hot-water soak in the bathtub.
"If you have a handheld shower head, you can apply warm water to the affected joints. Or you can massage your joints while you're in the bath," says Magdalena Cadet, MD, attending rheumatologist and assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine. This is a great way to boost the blood flow in your joints.
If you don't have a half hour to spare, even 10-20 minutes in a hot shower or soaking in the tub can help.
Try Gentle Stretches
"A 5- to 10-minute stretching routine will increase blood flow and lubricate your joints," Cadet says. This can ease your pain, boost your circulation, and deliver an extra dose of oxygen and nutrients to your joints.
You can even do it in bed. Try easy stretches like bending your knees. Move your elbows and ankles around. Do it slowly and gently. Exercises like tai chi or simple yoga poses may also help. Talk to your doctor to see if they're right for you.
It may take time to get your joints moving, but that's OK. It's much better to be active than not.
Stress can sometimes make your pain and RA worse, Cadet says. Try deep breathing or meditation to calm things down. It will help you manage morning stiffness and pain.
"We know water plays a role in cartilage and other parts of joints," Cadet says. When you drink water, you give your joints more of what they thirst for.
Keep a glass of water next to your bed so you can sip it before you fall asleep and as soon as you wake up.
Use Your Meds
Sometimes a bedtime dose of a painkiller can curb your morning pain, Wei says.
Acetaminophen and NSAIDs like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen can ease the inflammation in your joints. But they have side effects and may not be a good fit for your RA treatment plan. Get advice from your doctor first.
End Your Day on the Right Note
"The first thing I do when I get home at the end of the day is take a bath," Clayton says. Not only does the warm soak help manage her pain, but it helps loosen her joints before settling in for a good night's rest.