When you're living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), your symptoms can be a roller coaster ride. One day, you're feeling pretty good, but the next morning, pain and stiffness can flare up without much notice.
Some simple steps may keep joint problems from coming back.
Know What Triggers Your Flares
Do a little detective work. If you can figure out what's making your symptoms worse, you may be able to avoid problems down the road.
RA is unpredictable. It can be better or worse for reasons you can't control. Infections can be a culprit. So can stress. Some people get flares if they overdo it. Others say certain foods trigger problems, though there’s not a lot of research to back that up.
The important thing is to find out what’s going on. The next time you have a flare, make notes about what's been going on in your life. For instance:
- What's your overall health?
- What kinds of things are you doing every day?
- What foods have you been eating?
Once you learn your triggers, you can take steps to avoid them.
Take Your Medications on Schedule
The most important thing you can do to avoid a flare is to take your medicine on time. A regular schedule helps you keep a constant level of medicine in your body. Don't skip doses. Use a pillbox, calendar, or alarm to help stay on track.
Call your doctor right away if you feel a flare coming on. They may be able to tweak your meds to get your symptoms under control.
Work on How You Manage Stress
When you're stressed out, it's not just in your head. Your body makes more stress hormones, which may trigger RA symptoms.
There's no way to avoid stress completely, of course. But you can help prevent it if you take better care of yourself when you know that you have stressful events coming up, like work deadlines.
Look for new ways to ease your mind. For instance, exercise releases "feel-good" hormones called endorphins. Studies show that moving around improves your mood and helps you sleep better. Pick activities that don't put pressure on your joints. For example, go for a walk instead of a jog.
Mind-body techniques also can lower stress. Examples are:
Check to see if your local community center offers free or low-cost classes.
Get Enough Sleep
When you sleep, your muscles repair themselves, and your brain makes chemicals that help ease pain. So if you're not getting your ZZZs, that's a problem.
It can be a vicious cycle: you can't sleep well because of RA pain, and the pain gets worse because you can't sleep. If you're having trouble getting some shut-eye, ask your doctor about ways to break the pattern.
Check Your Diet
There’s no clear proof that diet has any effect on RA. But some people say they feel better when they cut out certain foods, such as:
- Beef, pork, or bacon
- Wheat or rye
- Processed or fast foods
If you want to adjust your diet, it’s probably fine. Just don't make big changes -- like cutting out a lot of foods at once or skipping entire food groups -- until you talk about it with your doctor.
On days when you feel good, you may be tempted to catch up on the things you couldn't get done when your RA was bothering you. Be careful not to do too much. You can bring on fatigue and trigger a flare if you push yourself too hard.
Decide which of your chores are most important, and then do them at a leisurely pace. Take a lot of breaks, even if you don't feel tired. Don't forget to ask your friends and family to help.
Protect Your Aching Joints
These simple methods may work:
- Use canes, special jar openers, and padded handles.
- Make it easier to lift, carry, or bend. Use your bigger joints instead of your smaller ones. Use your whole arm to lift things, not just your hands and wrists.
- Wear safety gear like knee and elbow pads, or wrist guards when you play sports or do outdoor activities.
- Put your joints through their full range of motion. Use slow, gentle movements.
- Strengthen the muscles and ligaments around your joints. If you don't have a physical therapist, ask your doctor to help you find one.
- Try to avoid extra weight, which puts pressure on your joints. Your doctor can tell you what your goal should be.
It's the last thing you need when you're already feeling sick, but the flu and other illnesses can bring on an RA flare.
For some kinds of infections, medication can help. But with the flu, the best treatment is usually time and rest. To protect yourself, make sure you get a flu shot each year.
Take Pregnancy Precautions
A lot of women notice that their RA symptoms get better during pregnancy. For some, that lasts after birth. But for others, flares come back after the baby is born, which can make those early days with a newborn even harder.
Work with your doctor to control symptoms. If you're breastfeeding, make sure your medications are safe for your baby.
Lighting up is linked with a higher risk of getting RA in the first place. It can also make the disease worse. If you want to quit but are having a hard time, your doctor may be able to help.
Remember: Flares Aren't Your Fault
Avoiding triggers is important, but you also need to understand the limits of what you can do to stop flares. Sometimes, you do everything right -- like taking your medicine regularly, avoiding triggers, eating healthy, and exercising -- and still get flares.
So when you have a flare, don't blame yourself or go crazy trying to track down triggers. Get some extra rest, take care of yourself, and check in with your doctor. You may need to change your medication until the flare ends and you're feeling like yourself again.