Why Self-Care Is So Important for People With RA


Amy Rushlow

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Medication may be the first line of therapy for rheumatoid arthritis (RA)—but it's not the last. Your everyday decisions can make a big impact on your overall health, your joint health, and how well you feel. In fact, research shows that people with RA who take an active role in their healthcare feel less pain. Here are some specific ways self-care—actions you take to care for your health—can improve your life.

Solid Sleep Prevents Pain

A majority of people with RA have sleep problems. And research shows that trouble sleeping is linked to increased pain in people who have RA. One study found that only one night of less-than-great sleep can increase the number of painful joints and can make joint pain more severe the next morning. This is because sleep loss may promote inflammation, which damages joints.

If you have sleep problems, stress reduction and relaxation techniques can help. In a method called progressive relaxation, for example, you systematically tense and then release the muscles of the body one by one.  

If you feel like you have trouble sleeping most nights of the week, talk with your doctor. He or she may suggest sleep medication, which has been shown to relieve insomnia in people with RA.

Physical Activity Delivers Many Benefits

If joint pain is keeping you from working out, consider this: Research shows that people with RA who are physically active are happier and live longer than their couch-bound counterparts. They also visit the hospital less frequently and have shorter stays when they are admitted. Physical activity also decreases arthritis pain and helps support your joints.

Experts recommend four different types of activity for people with RA:

  • Aerobic exercise, which can help you lose weight, relieving  pressure on your joints, and which helps prevent cardiovascular disease, a major cause of early death in people with RA

  • Balance training, to prevent falls

  • Strength training, to build muscle that protects joints

  • Stretching, to keep your joints flexible

The right exercise plan for you depends on your goals, your RA symptoms, and your joint health. Talk with a physical therapist or your doctor about the right exercise plan for you.

Lifestyle Changes Protect Your Heart

Your joints aren't the only part of your body affected by RA. RA patients are two to three times more likely to have a heart attack compared with people without arthritis.

Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to lower your risk for heart problems, including:

  • Being physically active

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Quitting smoking, if you smoke

  • Working with your doctor to control risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol

Even taking just one of the steps above can make a significant impact on your health. For example, regular aerobic activity can reduce the risk of dying from heart attack or stroke by 20 to 30%.
Talk with your doctor to learn what other self-care steps he or she recommends.

Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who take an active role in their healthcare feel less pain.

  • Getting enough sleep and exercise can help ease symptoms and improve your quality of life.

  • RA patients are more likely to have a heart attack compared with people without arthritis, but lifestyle changes can lower the risk.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Sep 21, 2016

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