RA Patients’ Top Tips for Tough Days
Everyone has good days and bad days, but if you are living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you don’t need us to tell you: Your bad days with this disease can be downright awful. Navigating the challenging moments in any chronic journey can take a little practice, so we asked some RA warriors what really helps them keep their chin up during the toughest times. Here’s what they told us.
Use Good Communication
Letting others know how you feel can really make a difference on difficult days, says Rick Phillips of Noblesville, IN. “My wife cannot know how I am doing unless I tell her,” says Phillips. Good communication is not only helpful in getting you the support you need with rheumatoid arthritis, but it can also help the entire family. According to the Arthritis Foundation, learning about arthritis and talking about the feelings and issues that surround it can help everyone adjust.
Heat Things Up
“Tough days require a good heating pad,” says Aimee Matsumoto, an RA patient in Los Angeles. Heat loosens up muscles, increases flexibility, and aids with circulation, helping ease RA pain. If you don’t have a heating pad, you can soak in a warm bath, hot tub, or whirlpool for about 20 minutes, or take a warm shower, according to the Cleveland Clinic. For a homemade heating pad, heat a damp washcloth in the microwave for about 20 seconds, wrap it in a towel and apply it to the painful area.
There you are, living your life, when suddenly symptoms get worse out of nowhere. These times of increased disease activity are known as flares, and can last for days, weeks, or even months, according to the Arthritis Foundation. A study in The Journal of Rheumatology found about 50% of flares last less than a week, while about 30% last more than two weeks. RA warrior Cathy Kramer, of Naperville, Illinois, says patience is the key. “It helps to remember that a flare is like a storm,” she says. “It comes, stays a while, and leaves.”
Tough days can get easier if you tune into the facts of the situation. For Phillips, being real means accepting his RA and lowering expectations during this time. “I have to remember that I am different today than the 20-year-old guy that I sometimes think I am,” he says. For Kramer, being real means understanding it is a very tough situation. “It can help to just let the tears come,” she says. “Sometimes it feels good to just feel sorry for yourself for a while.”
Keep Aids Nearby
“Keep things like knee, wrist, and ankle braces, canes, and walkers located next to your bed or in your car,” Matsumoto advises. These devices can make tasks easier on your joints and range from simple to elaborate. Some help keep joints in the best position for functioning, while others provide leverage when needed, or extend your range of motion. Simple arthritis self-help devices can be purchased at hardware stores, medical supply stores, or your local pharmacy.
“On rough days, clear your schedule as much as possible and focus on resting,” advises Kramer. Pacing yourself is a key strategy for self-managing RA flares, agrees Uzma Haque, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at the Arthritis Center at The Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, MD. “Ask yourself, ‘Do I really need to do all of this in my day?’” she says. “And most importantly, ‘How can I carve some time to get some rest?’”
Get Rid of Guilt
Lene Andersen of Toronto, Canada, has been living with RA since age 4 and knows a thing or two about tough days. Her recommendation? “Kicking guilt to the curb.” Once Andersen realized that she hadn’t done anything wrong, there was no longer a reason to feel guilty on days she had to slow down. According to Andersen, “It helped once I realized that resting on a bad day is not the same as ‘doing nothing.’” Instead, she says, “I came to understand that on those days, my body is busy healing.”
Find a Distraction
“It helps to distract yourself by trying something that you haven’t done before,” says Phillips. “It can be as simple as eating grits. Just pick something new and give it a go.” Research backs this approach: Mental distractions actually block pain signals from the body before they ever reach the brain, studies show. “Human brains have a limited capacity for attention,” says Randy Gollub, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA. If you have a demanding enough task, you’ll have less attention to give to your pain.
Make Your Own Rules
Andersen believes that on the toughest days, you need to write your own playbook. “Sleep, read a trashy book, or eat comfort food—anything that helps you feel better while you feel bad is on the table,” she says. Flares are a common experience with those living with RA. However, since a flare can feel different to each person, it makes sense that finding the things that make you feel better may be unique to you.
Cliché but true, self-love is everything on difficult days. “It’s really important that on tough days you love yourself,” says Matsumoto. “There have been days where I’ve planned for a fun day, but my body just didn’t cooperate. I have learned that it’s OK to cancel plans and take the day to recover.” Phillips put it this way, “One of the best things you can do on tough RA days is to love yourself enough to say, I am OK just like I am.”
- Good Communication: Arthritis Foundation. (n.d.). “How Arthritis Affects the Family.” arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/family-relationships/relationships/arthritis-affects-the-family
- Heating Pad: Cleveland Clinic. (2019). “What’s Better for Soothing Arthritis Pain? Ice or Heat?” health.clevelandclinic.org/whats-better-for-soothing-arthritis-pain-ice-or-heat/
- Patience: Arthritis Foundation. (n.d.). “How Long Does a Flare Last?” arthritis.org/diseases/more-about/how-long-does-a-flare-last
- Managing Flares: The Journal of Rheumatology. (2014). “Flares in Rheumatoid Arthritis: Frequency and Management. A Report from the BRASS Registry.” jrheum.org/content/41/2/227.short
- RA Aids: Arthritis Foundation. (n.d.). “Self-help arthritis devices.” arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/managing-pain/joint-protection/self-help-arthritis-devices
- Rest: Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center. (2019). “How to manage rheumatoid arthritis flares.” hopkinsarthritis.org/managing-your-arthritis/managing-rheumatoid-arthritis-flares/
- Find a Distraction: Harvard Health Letter. (2012). “Fool your brain, reduce your pain.” health.harvard.edu/pain/fool-your-brain-reduce-your-pain