Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes pain, swelling, and damage to the joints. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for RA. However, with proper treatment, it is possible to manage symptoms and achieve periods of remission where symptoms are minimal.
Can you ever be pain-free with RA?
While it may not be possible to be completely pain-free, many people with RA are able to effectively manage their symptoms and live active, fulfilling lives. With medications like disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), biologics, and corticosteroids, inflammation can be reduced significantly, leading to less pain over time. Lifestyle changes like exercise, diet, stress management, and rest can also help minimize flare ups.
That said, even during remission, some degree of pain and stiffness is common with RA. Symptoms may worsen with overactivity or if treatment is not optimized. Working closely with your rheumatologist to find the right treatment plan for your individual case offers the best chance at sustained relief.
What can you do during RA flares?
During RA flares when symptoms spike, there are several strategies to help manage pain:
- Take prescribed anti-inflammatories and analgesics as directed
- Apply heat or cold packs to affected joints
- Gentle range of motion exercises and stretches
- Rest the joint and avoid overuse
- Distract yourself with hobbies, reading, socializing
- Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, yoga
- Maintain a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet
You should also alert your doctor, as they may adjust medications or use joint injections to get the flare under control.
When does RA pain tend to be at its worst?
RA pain and stiffness is often worst in the mornings and after periods of inactivity. This is because fluid builds up in the joints when they are not being used, leading to inflammation and rigidness. Pain may also increase later in the day due to overuse of joints. Fatigue can lower pain tolerance as well.
RA symptoms frequently flare without warning, but some common triggers include:
- Too much or too little activity
- Weather changes
- Stress and emotional upsets
- Fatigue and poor sleep
- Infection or illness
- Hormonal changes
Keeping a symptom journal can help identify your personal triggers so you can try to avoid them.
How can you tell if your RA treatment is working?
Signs that your RA treatment is effective include:
- Decreased pain, swelling, and stiffness in joints
- Being able to move joints through a wider range of motion
- Less limitation of daily activities
- Feeling more energized, with less fatigue
- Experiencing fewer flares
- Lower inflammatory blood markers like ESR and CRP
However, benefits from RA medications may take weeks or months to realize. Be patient, stay in close contact with your doctor, and make adjustments to your treatment plan if needed.
When should you contact your doctor about RA pain?
You should reach out to your rheumatologist right away if you experience:
- Sudden, severe, or worsening joint pain
- Swelling in multiple joints
- Increased stiffness lasting more than 1 hour in the morning
- Signs of infection like fever, redness, heat
- New nodules or rashes around joints
- Severe fatigue, nausea, or other concerning symptoms
Flare ups that do not respond to at-home remedies within a few days should also be reported. Your doctor can determine if medication adjustments, joint injections, or other interventions are required.
How can you improve quality of life with RA?
While living with chronic inflammatory joint pain is challenging, there are many ways to enhance your quality of life with RA:
- Stay active and exercise regularly within your limits
- Eat a nutritious, anti-inflammatory diet
- Reduce stress through meditation, yoga, massage, counseling, support groups
- Get adequate rest and sleep
- Make time for hobbies and social activities you enjoy
- Use assistive devices for daily tasks like jar openers, reachers, shower chairs
- Stay positive and seek support from loved ones
- Set realistic goals and pacing strategies to conserve energy
Learning your limitations and triggers will allow you to plan and prioritize activities so you can participate in life as fully as possible.
While RA is a lifelong condition, it does not have to prevent you from living your best life. Committing to an effective treatment plan and implementing various lifestyle habits and coping strategies can help minimize painful flares. There may be tough days, but remission and low disease activity are very possible with today’s medical therapies and a holistic approach. Support is key, so surround yourself with a caring healthcare team and community to make the journey with rheumatoid arthritis easier.