Imagine two people with identical cases of arthritis. Even on x-rays, their joints look exactly alike, and every test comes back with the same results. The only difference: One person is in agony, while the other has relatively little pain.
Many people assume there’s a one-to-one relationship between arthritis and pain, meaning if damage to the joints is severe, so is the pain. The truth is more complicated. Many different things can affect pain, from your mood to your diet to your sleep habits. As reported in one issue of the Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America, arthritis patients who feel helpless are especially likely to become disabled with pain.
Here’s a look at different ways to control arthritis pain. Some are obvious; some are surprising. All can help you cope with your condition and get on with your life.
Take your medication as directed
No matter what kind of arthritis you have, medications can help ease your pain. Some people need nothing more than an occasional over-the-counter pain reliever, like acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen. Others need prescription medicine to alleviate their symptoms or slow the progression of the disease. These are powerful medications, though, so ask your doctor for side effects you should be aware of, and immediately report any that you experience to your doctor.
Warnings have been issued about naproxen, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug that some people use for arthritis pain. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health were conducting a study to determine whether the drug could be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, but the study was halted after findings showed that patients who took naproxen were 50 percent more likely to have heart attacks or strokes. The Food and Drug Administration has advised people who take the drug to talk with their doctors about it.
Keep those joints moving
Regular exercise is a powerful remedy for arthritis. Experts recommend a combination of stretching, range-of-motion exercises (moving the joint through its full range), strength training, and aerobic exercise. As your joints become stronger, more flexible, and more stable, arthritis pain will likely fade and you may need less pain medication. If it’s hard to walk, start with water exercise. Many local YMCAs offer this kind of “aquatic therapy” class for arthritis.
Heat and ice
Both heat and cold can ease arthritis pain. Your doctor or physical therapist can help you decide which is the best choice for you. If your doctor recommends heat, try using a heating pad for about 15 minutes, or taking a warm bath or shower. You can ease the swelling in a joint with an ice pack or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel, but don’t ice a joint for more than 20 minutes at a time (longer than that can cause frostbite). Keep in mind that cold therapy may be counterproductive if you have circulation problems.
Support your joints
If a joint is unstable, a splint, brace, or neoprene sleeve may help