If your rheumatoid arthritis (RA) pain has you reaching for medications more and more often, it’s time to investigate natural ways to ease your symptoms.
Certain lifestyle habits can support the disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) that you take to stop the disease’s progression without increasing side effects and health risks. What’s more, many bring overall health benefits, such as reduced risk for cancer and improved heart health.
Ease RA the Natural Way
• Practice range-of-motion (ROM) exercises. An active lifestyle is the single most effective way to keep joints bathed in soothing synovial fluid. It might be challenging—or even impossible during a flare—but done regularly, exercise can decrease pain and fatigue. RA responds particularly well to range-of-motion exercises.
These stretching moves, such as shoulder shrugs and circles, wall pushes and bending and straightening each leg while lying on your back, increase flexibility and keep your muscles strong. Work with a physical therapist to create a program tailored to your specific needs.
Bonus: Improved flexibility from ROM exercises translates into fewer falls, which are common among people with RA.
Tip: For extra pain relief, do as many of these exercises as possible while in a warm tub or shower or after applying heat directly to any painful joints with a hot, wet towel or heating pad for 15 minutes.
• Rub on capsaicin. Yes, the same compound that makes your mouth burn when you eat chili peppers can counteract the feeling of pain in your joints when applied to the skin surface. Capsaicin blocks substance P, a chemical responsible for transmitting pain signals to your brain. You’ll likely feel a mild burning sensation that lessens over time. After a few days of thrice-daily applications to the affected joints, the capsaicin should begin curbing painful RA sensations. Once RA pain subsides, you may continue to apply capsaicin for maintenance or as needed, up to three times daily. Good over-the-counter products: Zostrix and Capzasin. These are available as creams and gels and in different strengths—try a low-dose version first. If you don’t get enough relief after a few days, step up to a higher concentration.
Caution: Use medical gloves when applying to avoid getting it directly on fingertips, and be sure not to get any near your eyes, nose, mouth or genitals. Also, don’t combine capsaicin topicals with a heating pad—doing so can cause burns. Skip capsaicin if you have psoriasis, eczema or any other skin condition or rash, and stop using it if it causes a skin reaction, such as redness or swelling.
• Work toward a healthy weight. The more overweight you are, the more inflammatory chemicals are coursing through your body and the greater your risk for pain. One such chemical, C-reactive protein, is also associated with diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Extra weight is also harder on weight-bearing joints, such as hips, ankles and knees. Losing as little as 10 pounds can make a big difference in symptoms, especially when combined with an anti-inflammatory, plant-based diet—lots of legumes and produce. This one-two punch creates changes at the cellular level, decreasing inflammation and reducing pain, stiffness and disability.
• Load up on fruit with deeply colored skins. Purple grapes, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and dark cherries all contain anthocyanins, pain-relieving plant compounds that are anti-inflammatory.
• Consider cupping. This centuries–old technique involves applying suction to the skin via glass cups filled with hot air (the treatment lasts five to 20 minutes). Despite the marks made, cupping doesn’t hurt and seems to work well for localized RA pain. Exactly how cupping helps isn’t known for sure, but one theory is that the suction may improve circulation and aid in tissue repair in the skin and muscles. For this reason, it may also help ease RA-related spasms and muscular pain. Seek out a certified acupuncturist, physical therapist or licensed massage therapist with training in the technique.
• Calm the mind to calm the body. Stress is a well-recognized pain trigger. It doesn’t cause pain, per se, but the way your mind and body respond to stress can increase your interpretation of and response to pain.
Stress-relieving techniques include deep abdominal breathing, which oxygenates the blood, triggering the release of morphine-like pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. Tai chi, a series of slow, graceful movements practiced while standing, increases balance, flexibility and strength while easing emotional stress. Beginners can call their local Arthritis Foundation for a nearby class recommendation. Music therapy, visualization and meditation also can help. Just be sure to choose a method that works for you. Set aside 10 to 15 minutes a day to practice it.
• Slash caffeine. RA fatigue can be more limiting than the pain itself, but consuming caffeine for energy can backfire. The stimulant mimics the body’s natural stress response and, especially at higher amounts, might cause a short-term rise in heart rate and blood pressure and set up an inflammatory cascade that can ultimately lead to more pain. And while caffeine is sometimes added to pain medications, which can temporarily improve energy, caffeine also can heighten the side effects of pain medications, including anxiety and trembling.
Helpful: Green and black tea have beneficial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects but less caffeine than coffee.
Try holistic sleep strategies for fatigue, such as a warm bath before bed, keeping your bedroom cool and dark, and avoiding evening exercise. Tip: Make sure your mattress is firm—a soft mattress puts extra stress on your joints.
It may take a week or two of practicing these therapies to notice a difference, but many RA patients ultimately discover a significant degree of relief.