Chronic pain is the primary symptom of rheumatoid arthritis. People experience inflammation and swelling that causes joint pain and stiffness, making it hard for them to move around, grip objects firmly, and perform many other everyday tasks. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the immune system begins to attack the synovium, a thin layer of soft tissue inside joints that provides cushioning and lubrication. As the synovium degrades, joints begin to swell and lose their flexibility. People most often need rheumatoid arthritis pain relief for joints in the hand, spine, hips, knees, and wrists.
When thinking about rheumatoid arthritis pain relief, it’s helpful to break the pain down into three different classifications, says Nortin M. Hadler, MD, professor of medicine and microbiology/immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and attending rheumatologist at UNC Hospitals. These categories include:
• Joint pain. “It runs in a range from mild to quite severe, almost always is waxing and waning, and always tends to be what we consider the biggest problem,” Dr. Hadler says.
• Joint stiffness. As the disease progresses, you may begin to lose flexibility in the affected joints, and the more flexibility you lose, the more the joints hurt, says Hadler.
• Emotional pain. All this pain and stiffness can begin to take an emotional toll on you. “It can be the dominant hallmark of the illness,” Hadler says. “It’s a consequence of the compromise in personal effectiveness — as in ‘who am I and how do other people perceive me and what can I accomplish?’ For many people with the disease, it’s this emotional component that’s overwhelming.”
Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain Relief
To help manage all the types of pain that accompany rheumatoid arthritis:
• Medication. There is a wide range of medication available to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Some agents, like over-the-counter NSAIDs and prescription corticosteroids, help relieve pain by reducing inflammation. Anti-rheumatic drugs like methotrexate treat the disease itself.
• Diet. Losing weight by eating a balanced diet can reduce stress and strain on your joints. Some early research suggests that increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids by eating fish or taking supplements may help reduce joint inflammation. On the other hand, limiting your consumption of red meat and saturated fats could help because they contain arachidonic acid, a fatty acid that promotes inflammation.
• Heat and cold therapy. Applying cold packs or ice bags to an aching joint can numb the pain and reduce inflammation and is particularly useful during an arthritis flare-up. Heat therapy through the use of heating pads, warm baths, or other methods can help relax muscles and stimulate blood flow in the area of the joint.