No matter where you feel it most, one thing is for sure: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a nagging source of pain. When you have RA, your immune system mistakenly attacks your joints. White blood cells, which are part of the immune system, attack the synovium, the tissue lining a capsule that protects your joints. This results in swelling, warmth, redness, and—as you know well—pain.
But having RA doesn't mean you need to suffer. There are many treatment options available today—from lifestyle changes to medications—that can help alleviate pain. Ask your doctor which of these four tried-and-true pain relief strategies could do the trick for you.
1. Go hot and cold. Heat and cold help control pain in different ways. Heat—in the form of a 15-minute hot bath, for example—increases blood flow. Applying cold to painful joints—for instance, with ice packs—helps numb pain.
2. Strike a good balance between rest and exercise. During flares, rest is the name of the game. It helps control inflammation within the joint to stave off pain. When you're feeling well, exercise can help reduce pain on its own. Working out can also help you sleep better, improve your mood, and aid you in shedding excess weight that can contribute to pain. What's more, exercise can bring your stress levels down. (When you're stressed, you may experience more pain.) Talk with your doctor about how to get moving in a safe and effective way.
3. Find the right medication regimen. Historically, doctors started with aspirin and other pain relievers and waited to prescribe more powerful medications until the disease worsened. But today, many physicians begin with more advanced drugs, or a combination of them, in order to prevent joint damage that can lead to pain.
Here's a look at the types of meds you may take:
Corticosteroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which reduce inflammation
Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) to slow the progression of the disease
Biologic response modifiers that short-circuit the series of events that cause inflammation and lead to pain
Working with your doctor, you can find the medication or combination of medications that provides the most relief.
4. Ask your doctor if surgery may help. If your pain is severe and your disease advanced, your doctor might suggest surgery. Reducing pain is always a top priority when contemplating surgery. Surgical procedures for RA include:
Joint replacement: This involves removing part or all of a damaged joint and replacing it with artificial materials. Hips and knees are the most frequently replaced joints. Today, minimally invasive surgical procedures allow surgeons to replace joints using much smaller incisions, which allow for a faster recovery. Recent data suggests that joint replacement surgery is becoming less common for RA, however, probably reflecting the widespread adoption of the latest RA medications.
Arthrodesis: With this procedure, a surgeon removes the joint and fuses the bones together so they can't move. This creates a more stable unit to help reduce pain in the problematic joints. The ankles, wrists, and joints in the fingers and toes are the most frequently fused.
Remember: You don't need to suffer in silence. Let your doctor know if your pain isn't under control so you can ease symptoms and get back to your life.
There are many treatment options—from lifestyle changes to medications and surgery—that can help relieve RA pain.
Applying heat or cold to painful areas helps many people.
It's important to strike the right balance between rest and exercise.
Finding the right medication regimen is key. Options include NSAIDs, DM ARDs, and biologics.
Surgery may be an option if medications have not worked for you.