If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you will learn to pay special attention to the way you move and the way you function in general. Joint pain and generalized symptoms such as fatigue and stiffness can make ordinary activities — known as activities of daily living, or ADLs — more challenging, especially during flare-ups. An occupational therapist or physical therapist can offer many suggestions about how to optimize your capacity to manage everyday tasks at home and at work.
These therapists also can provide you with special devices to help conserve your energy and protect your joints. For example, you can use a splint, brace, sling, elastic bandage or cane during times when your joints are particularly tender to reduce the pressure on your joints and protect them from further injury. A podiatrist may provide shoe inserts (orthotics) or may recommend special shoes, among other treatments, to reduce pain in your feet and improve your ability to function.
To prevent disability and preserve joint function, you will need to develop an exercise routine. It may be helpful to have your health-care provider or a physical therapist evaluate the motion of your joints and suggest specific exercises to help maintain your present level of functioning. If you don't actively use a diseased joint because of pain, you may develop muscle atrophy (that is, muscle wasting). Muscle atrophy may result in loss of muscle strength and endurance.
Exercise can help prevent muscle atrophy. Isometric exercises, which do not require joint motion, can be especially effective during flare-ups. It is critically important to work with your health-care provider to arrive at the right balance of exercise and rest and to avoid both underdoing and overdoing your exercise. Never exercise to the point of increased or severe pain.
There is no diet known to improve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and there are no proven dietary supplements that are clearly effective over a long period.
A number of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies have been advocated for rheumatoid arthritis, although most have not been rigorously studied. For example, homeopathy and acupuncture appear to be safe, but the potential benefits of these therapies remain uncertain.
Researchers are sorting out which CAM approaches work best for people with rheumatoid arthritis. If you have questions about therapeutic interventions or devices that are not among the standard treatment approaches, talk with your health-care provider or contact the Arthritis Foundation. Whatever approach you take, it is important to let your health-care provider know about it.