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Lifestyle Changes to Manage Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Lifestyle changes can't cure rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but can help manage the condition, and decrease discomfort and disability. It's important to find a balance to maintain as much of a normal life as possible. Lifestyle recommendations include:

Quit Smoking

If you smoke, continuing to do so will aggravate RA symptoms. Smoking triggers inflammatory processes that affect every cell in the body. If you have RA, quitting smoking will have immediate positive effects on your overall health. Talk with your doctor about how you can successfully quit.

Diet

A healthy diet is important for overall well-being and maintaining a healthy weight. Be sure to get adequate amounts of calories, protein, and calcium. In general, eat less saturated and more mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Increase intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Excess weight can put extra stress on your joints. If you are overweight, talk to your doctor or a dietitian about dietary options.

There are no specific foods that cause flare-ups or increase the progression of RA. However, omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce the inflammation associated with RA. Omega-3 is found in fatty fish and certain plant seed oils. Although it is also available in supplement form, a doctor or pharmacist should be consulted before supplements are taken.

Alcohol can interact with some RA medications, such as methotrexate. If alcohol is permitted, drink in moderation. Moderation is 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women.

Exercise

Keep in mind that periods of rest may be necessary during times when symptoms flare up, but complete bed rest is not recommended. Reasonable, physical activity can help improve mobility and flexibility. Immobility can make your joints worse.

Consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. Exercise programs can be tailored to be protective of the joints that are affected by RA. To make the most of exercises, an exercise physiologist or physical therapist will help design a safe, effective program.

Reduce Stress

Stress can make pain worse. Try to avoid or manage stress, especially when symptoms flare. There are several ways to reduce stress, such as meditation or other relaxation techniques.

Monitor Yourself for Depression

It is very common to experience mood changes, especially within the first few months of a new diagnosis or during RA flares. Depression can undermine your recovery and put you at risk for more serious health complications. Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in your favorite activities that stay with you for at least 2 weeks should prompt a call to your doctor. There are several treatment options available, such as medications and/or counseling.

Returning to Everyday Life

  • Sexual activity—It is normal for you or your partner to feel concerned about sexual activity. RA can have an impact on sex and your relationship. You and your partner may also be referred to individual or couples counseling. It will allow you both to talk about your concerns.
  • Counseling—Support groups or one-on-one counseling can help you navigate the challenges of RA. Support groups allow for interaction with others who have similar experiences. They offer an environment of encouragement and support that will help with adjustments and treatment adherence.
  • Be an active participant in your care—Talk to your healthcare team about symptoms or treatments that you are having difficulty with. Other treatments options may be available to help you better manage your health.

Revision Information

  • Handout on health: Rheumatoid arthritis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health%5FInfo/Rheumatic%5FDisease/default.asp. Updated August 2014. Accessed October 31, 2014.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Foundation website. Available at: http://www.arthritis.org/conditions-treatments/disease-center/rheumatoid-arthritis. October 31, 2014.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis. The Merck Manual Professional Edition website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/musculoskeletal%5Fand%5Fconnective%5Ftissue%5Fdisorders/joint%5Fdisorders/rheumatoid%5Farthritis%5Fra.html. Updated May 2013. Accessed October 31, 2014.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated April 10, 2014. Accessed October 31, 2014.

  • Sex and arthritis. American College of Rheumatology website. Available at: http://www.rheumatology.org/practice/clinical/patients/diseases%5Fand%5Fconditions/sexandarthritis.asp. Accessed October 31, 2014.

  • Wasserman AM. Diagnosis and management of rheumatoid arthritis. Am Fam Physician. 2011;84(11):1245-1252.