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Every morning, millions of people wake up with the pain and stiff joints caused by rheumatoid arthritis. RA is a progressive autoimmune disease where, for reasons that are yet unclear, the body begins to attack its own tissues. The disease typically begins by affecting the lining of the joints, starting with the fingers and toes. It can then spread to other joints as well as other tissues within the body. A common sign of worsening rheumatoid arthritis is fingers that appear misaligned or crooked due to bone and ligament damage.
There is not a cure for RA, though medical research is active around the disease. Treatment for the disease focuses on two areas, alleviating symptoms and slowing the progression of damage. There is a range of treatment options for patients with RA, from simple actions of self-care to surgical intervention.
Especially in the early stages of RA, patients can find relief in basic self-care. Patients will want to ease pain and keep joints flexible.
Exercise. As you learned in science class, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Often, when people begin to experience the pain of RA, their impulse is to avoid moving tender joints. However, this may allow stiffness to set in, making movement even more difficult. Gentle exercise has been found to provide relief in most stages of RA. Many patients swear by the practice of the slow motions of Tai Chi. Others find help in the stretches of a yoga class.
Cold Relief. Ice packs and cold patches can reduce swelling and ease pain. This will allow you to be more flexible. RA patients can treat their symptoms like injured athletes, icing down after activity.
Mindfulness. The pain of RA is not in your head, but doing mental exercises can help you control the pain. First, mindfulness meditation can help you relax the muscles around the site of your pain, making it easier to bear. Second, such meditation can help you be realistic about the pain, noting its size and level.
Over the Counter Pain Relief. In earlier stages, common pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen can ease pain. Patients using these medications should pay attention to how effective they are and how many doses they are taking. Overuse can lead to side effects such as impaired liver function.
While not heavily studied, there are some suggested natural remedies to deal with RA symptoms.
Fish Oil. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. Regular use may reduce the morning stiffness of RA.
Evening Primrose Oil. This natural plant oil contains omega-6 fatty acids that are reported to provide reduced joint stiffness.
CBD Oil. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a chemical found in cannabis plants. Most CBD oils on the market are derived from hemp rather than marijuana. This means that they lack the levels of THC that provide the high of marijuana. CBD has been shown to relieve stress and anxiety in some patients, making RA easier to bear. Its pain-relieving properties are currently being evaluated.
Certain health issues are linked to increasing the probability of rheumatoid arthritis and speeding up its progression. By changing some lifestyle habits, you can reduce your risk of RA.
Obesity. For women, there is a strong link between obesity and the onset of RA. Extra weight already puts strain on joints and reduces flexibility. This will make RA symptoms that much more difficult to bear. A healthier diet and more activity will help maintain a healthy bodyweight.
Smoking. Smokers, especially men who smoke, are more likely to be diagnosed with RA. Smoking is also linked to bone loss over time. If you are diagnosed with RA, your bones will already be prone to damage. By stopping your smoking habit, you lower the risk of many medical conditions, including RA.
As the disease progresses, more intervention will be required to deal with symptoms. Seeking the help of physical and occupational therapists is a common way to handle RA.
Physical Therapy. For RA patients, a physical therapist can help maintain mobility and flexibility. The therapist is trained to help people recover from injury. RA tends to cycle in most people, going through periods of flareups and remission. During remission, a physical therapist can help patients recover lost movement. He or she will use stretches, exercises and resistance training to rebuild lost strength and recover lost ability.
Occupational Therapy. In more extreme cases of RA, patients may have difficulty in completing basic daily tasks such as dressing, food preparation and dining. Occupational therapists teach patients how to handle such tasks with reduced ability. They will train patients in techniques such as lifting objects with forearms rather than fingers. They will also help patients discover the many assistive devices available to RA patients that can help with basic tasks.
As RA symptoms worsen, self-care may not be enough to handle the discomfort and pain. In addition, medical treatments can do the important work of slowing the progression of the disease.
Stronger Pain Medications. Doctors can prescribe stronger anti-inflammatory pain relievers than can be purchased over the counter. Some of these are stronger versions of over the counter NSAIDs. Others, such as celecoxib, indomethacin and fenoprofen, are only available in prescription strength.
Steroids. Steroids such as prednisone reduce the inflammation of RA. Many patients take a low-dose steroid on a regular basis to manage RA symptoms and keep them from getting worse.
DMARDs. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, or DMARDs, are a powerful tool in combatting RA. They work by reducing the effectiveness of the immune system. This can lead to longer periods without RA symptoms. However, because they affect the immune system in general, they can make patients more susceptible to infection.
Biologics. Biologics are a new class of DMARDs that have a more targeted affect on the immune system, turning off the chemical signal that triggers inflammation.
Some patients can benefit from surgical treatment. Due to the risks inherent in surgery and the length of recovery, it is not the first step for treatment.
Synovectomy. In this procedure, affected tissue is removed from the joint. This can relieve symptoms, but it can also reduce mobility.
Joint Fusion. This procedure is done to realign damaged joints. Joint tissue is removed, and the bones of the joint are fused together, ending symptoms but also removing all mobility.
Joint Replacement. This procedure is common for both osteoarthritis and RA. Here, the entire joint is removed and replaced by an artificial joint. When done properly, joint replacement can eliminate symptoms for years.
There is a strong link between early intervention and quality of life for RA patients. The sooner you begin to address the symptoms of RA, the easier it is to manage the disease over the long term. Do not ignore pain or stiffness in your joints. Consult a medical professional as soon as possible.
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