Living with a chronic illness can be a real pain in the neck — literally and metaphorically.
Especially when the hallmarks of your long-term condition are literal, physical (and emotional!) pain, as is the case with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
So while we’d normally put a silly gif here, 2024’s Rheumatoid Arthritis Awareness Day is no laughing matter. And plus, there aren’t any funny clips related to joint pain out there. Trust us, we checked.
Instead, let’s cut to the chase.
We asked Dr. Neal, holistic pharmacist and fierce advocate of science-based self-care, for his top wellness practices for RA. Because life with rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult, but with the right practices in your holistic wellness toolbox, a happier, less painful experience is possible.
In This Article:
- Understanding rheumatoid arthritis
- Wellness practices for thriving with RA
- When to seek medical care for RA
What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Most people are familiar with the term arthritis. We generally categorize this condition as an inevitable part of aging, placing it alongside liver spots and hearing loss.
It’s no wonder, then, that retirees from either side of the political spectrum are increasingly supportive of federal marijuana legalization. (A joint effort for joint support, if you will.)
But when you add the word “rheumatoid” in front of arthritis, it paints a different picture.
In this context, the word rheumatoid clarifies that this kind of arthritis is marked by inflammation.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition that affects the joints and, in some cases, the organs. The most common signs of RA are similar to those of traditional arthritis — like joint pain and stiffness — but the symptoms are caused by different things.
In arthritis, the cartilage that protects the bones in our joints is worn down by normal, mechanical wear and tear. In RA, the tissue lining of our joints is actually attacked by the body’s immune system — which makes it an autoimmune disease.
Sorry we lied about there not being any funny joint pain gifs, but we really do take rheumatoid arthritis seriously.
Especially because, over time, the inflammatory nature of this autoimmune disease can lead to erosion and deformity of the bones and joints. Plus, in their day-to-day experiences, people with RA often experience swelling, aching, tenderness, and as a result, fatigue.
A quick Google search will tell you that there aren’t any “cures” for RA either, as it is considered a chronic disorder. But if you’re sick to the bone of being in pain — and willing to dig a little deeper than the surface-level consensus — there are ways to mitigate the driving forces of painful symptoms.
Which are, as you now know, autoimmunity and inflammation.
The Wellness Pyramid: A Framework for Holistic Rheumatoid Arthritis
If we’re looking to drive down inflammation and support a healthy, balanced immune system then we have to start with the building blocks of wellness.
And yes, we have to focus on these mundane areas of life before we reach for a trending cure-all that claims to totally eradicate inflammation. Because, as we always say, you can’t out-supplement an unsupportive lifestyle no matter how much you spend.
So we begin by working with what we can control. AKA, the lifestyle domains that make the foundation of our health: diet, sleep, exercise, stress management, and environmental or external changes.
Food has the power to help or hinder our healing. So does this mean you have to adopt a particular diet or cut out all your favorite foods if you’ve been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis? Not necessarily.
Recent studies have linked diets high in processed foods to increased inflammation and disease risk. And the inverse is true as well — diets rich in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean protein sources are associated with lower inflammation scores.
But we recommend doing what every health-focused person should strive to do, which is eat more nutritious food and less processed food. Having an inflammation-based autoimmune disease just means that this goal may have a more profound impact on your quality of life than the average Joe.
Fueling your days with nutrient-dense foods is a great way to give your body a fighting chance against inflammation and autoimmunity. The next step? Use that newfound energy to get moving.
Which we don’t say lightly, because we know working with the day-to-day pain of rheumatoid arthritis is no small feat. But the science is (pretty much) unequivocal: exercise can help improve RA symptoms. In fact, a recent study has gained some street cred for showing that just 12 weeks of regular movement can noticeably reduce the disease activity of RA.
Before you hit the gym or push yourself past comfortable limits, though, remember that exercise doesn’t have to be barbells and cardio power hours. Gentle stretching, ambling walks, swimming, and doing fascial maneuvers are all perfectly acceptable ways to start your movement journey and experience the benefits of exercise for RA.
Learn More: The Truth About Exercise: Ditch the Myths
For people with RA, reductions in sleep quality can not only increase disease activity and duration but, according to this Swedish study, also lower quality of life and worsen pain.
The good news is that all these positive changes you make in the diet and exercise arenas can, in turn, have a positive impact on your sleep quality, too.
Because these simple facets of life affect us and each other in big ways, and nothing in the body happens inside a vacuum. So, to further support your holistic — or whole-body, whole-being — approach to RA self-care put some snoozing time on your schedule. And deepen your sleeping experience by taking electronic devices out of your bedroom and dozing with light-blocking sleep masks.
Learn More: 5 Things to Do (Not Take) for Better Sleep
Lifestyle (or Environmental) Changes
If donning an eye mask and taking the TV out of your room doesn’t scratch the self-care itch, don’t worry. While we can’t control everything in our external environments, we can make choices that reduce the burden our bodies have to carry.
That could look like lowering the number of endocrine disruptors you bring in your home — in the form of cleaning and hygiene products — or tackling in-home allergens with hypoallergenic furniture and mattress covers. Or it could even be as simple as getting enough water!
But if you want to bring in the big guns for combatting external inflammatory agents, then it’s time to take a look at your wind-down habits.
Smoking, drinking, and taking drugs are all things that can increase inflammation and exacerbate symptoms of inflammation-based diseases. So, without belittling the difficulties of overcoming addiction, might we gently suggest working with a licensed professional to forge new ways of relaxing?
Your health, and your chances of putting your rheumatoid arthritis in remission, depend on it.
Speaking of stress! This silent but deadly human condition makes basically every part of life more difficult and unpleasant — inflammation and autoimmunity included.
Left unchecked, chronic stress can have a tangible impact on both physiological and emotional health. For people with RA, however, the risk that stress poses is even more severe. Intense stress can send the immune system into overdrive, ramping up autoimmunity symptoms and even playing a role in disease onset.
When it messes with the immune system as it does, stress can also increase inflammation, paving the way for a stressful cycle of disregulation that impedes healing. This is why having a consistent stress management practice is crucial for folks with RA.
That relaxing, restorative practice can come in many different forms. Whether you chose home-based options like meditation or work with a mental health care professional, stress management should be a top priority.
When to Seek Medical Care for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis requires a medical professional for diagnosis, so chances are, you’re already chatting with your doctor.
But your rheumatologist doesn’t have to be the only soldier in your line of defense. Many patients with RA have self-reported success with additional care from chiropractors, accupuncturists, and other body-based professionals. When paired with the data-backed medications from your doctor, these holistic options can provide the additional oomph you need to truly thrive with RA.
And don’t forget your supplement strategists, too!
Only a phone call away, our team of nutrient nerds can provide direct, personalized advice for optimizing your supplements to reduce inflammation and balance immunity. After all, rheumatoid arthritis can affect your entire life, so you deserve an approach that integrates your whole experience into the healing process.