Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment: More Than Meds

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 05, 2020

If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you know medication is essential to ease your pain and to protect your joints. But medicine is just the first step in what you can do to take care of yourself and feel better.

Get Active

Exercise makes RA symptoms better, not worse. Physical activity lowers pressure on your joints, cuts inflammation, strengthens your bones, and relieves pain. Focus on walking and other low-impact aerobic exercise, as well as strength-building.

Good choices include:

A physical therapist or occupational therapist can create an exercise plan for you.

Take it easier when you are having a flare, when your joints are inflamed, or you feel tired. But keep up gentle stretching so your joints stay flexible. Scale your routine back up when your symptoms improve.

Turn to Therapists

Physical and occupational therapy make life with RA easier.

Physical therapists help you move your body safely and easily. They will teach you exercises to keep your joints flexible and the muscles around them strong. They can make your regular chores more comfortable, and recommend hot and cold therapy, braces, splints, and other treatments.

Occupational therapists focus on making daily activities less painful. They’ll ask about your routines and teach you the best ways to carry out tasks at home and work. They suggest assistive devices and tools like hand grips, reachers, jar openers, zipper pulls, and buttonhooks.

Settle Down for Sleep

RA symptoms can make it hard to sleep. But too little rest often makes pain worse. Stick to a good sleep routine to give yourself the best chance of a full night.

Some possible steps:

  • Make sure your bed and bedding are comfortable.
  • Go to bed at the same time every night.
  • Try earplugs or blackout curtains.
  • Avoid TV just before bed.
  • Skip evening caffeine.
  • Take a bath before bed.

If your pain is keeping you up, you might want to take a painkiller before bed. Tell your doctor if you have consistent sleep troubles.

Eat Well

Follow a balanced diet that will keep your weight healthy. (Obesity can make RA worse, and losing weight relieves pressure on your joints.)

Eat a variety of foods and plenty of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. Steer clear of processed foods. This kind of diet is low in saturated fats and sodium, and could help reduce your RA symptoms.

Make sure to put fish on the menu. Research has found that people with RA who eat more fish may have less pain and swelling.

You might find that certain foods make your symptoms worse. It’s OK to avoid them, but don’t try strict elimination diets or cut out whole food groups without talking to your doctor or a dietitian.

Tend to Your Emotional Health

It’s normal to feel worried, overwhelmed, or down when you deal with RA. Remember, your emotional health is linked to your physical health. When you’re in pain, you may feel angry and frustrated, and you will feel happier when your symptoms are better.

Take care of yourself so you can better face your health challenges. Seek self-care like meditation, music, art, massage, exercise, and time in nature. See friends, and nurture your hobbies and social life.

Arthritis support groups online and in person help you connect with other people. Professional counseling gives you the chance to express your feelings. Let your doctor know how you’re feeling emotionally, as well as physically.

Show Sources


American College of Rheumatology: “Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

Arthritis Foundation: “6 Self-Care Tips for RA,” Best Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis,” “Best Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis.” “Occupational Therapy for Arthritis,” “Self-Help Arthritis Devices,” “Managing Emotions and Arthritis.”

National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society: “Where Do I Begin?” “Guide to Getting a Good Night’s Sleep,” “The DAS28 Score.”

Mayo Clinic: “Rheumatoid Arthritis,” “Can Certain Diets Affect Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms?”

Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center: “Nutrition & Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases: “The impact of obesity on the development and progression of rheumatoid arthritis.”

Arthritis Care & Research: “Relationship Between Fish Consumption and Disease Activity in Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

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