Rheumatoid Arthritis

Treatment

Most Symptoms Are Treatable

Doctors use a variety of approaches to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The goals of treatment are to help relieve pain, reduce swelling, slow down or help prevent joint damage, increase the ability to function, and improve the sense of well-being.

Current treatment approaches include

Balance Rest and Exercise

People with rheumatoid arthritis need a good balance between rest and exercise; they should rest more when the disease is active and exercise more when it is not. Rest helps to reduce active joint inflammation and pain and to fight fatigue. The length of time for rest will vary from person to person, but in general, shorter rest breaks every now and then are more helpful than long times spent in bed.

Exercise is important for maintaining healthy and strong muscles, preserving joint mobility, and maintaining flexibility. Exercise can also help people sleep well, reduce pain, maintain a positive attitude, and manage weight. Exercise programs should take into account the person’s physical abilities, limitations, and changing needs.

Learn more about the health benefits of exercise for older adults.

More information about exercise and physical activity for older adults can be found at Go4Life®, the exercise and physical activity campaign from the National Institute on Aging.

Reduce Stress

People with rheumatoid arthritis face emotional challenges as well as physical ones. The emotions they feel because of the disease—fear, anger, and frustration—combined with any pain and physical limitations can increase their stress level. Finding ways to reduce stress is important.

Regular rest periods can help and so can relaxation, distraction, or visualization exercises. Exercise programs, participation in support groups, and good communication with the health care team are other ways to reduce stress. For more information on exercise classes, you may want to contact the Arthritis Foundation at 1-800-283-7800.

Learn about relaxation techniques that may relieve tension.

Eat a Healthful Diet

Special diets, vitamin supplements, and other alternative approaches have been suggested for treating rheumatoid arthritis. Although such approaches may not be harmful, scientific studies have not yet shown any benefits.

Special diets, vitamin supplements, and other alternative approaches have been suggested for treating rheumatoid arthritis. Although such approaches may not be harmful, scientific studies have not yet shown any benefits.

See Eating Well as You Get Older for more about healthy eating.

Reduce Stress on Joints

Some people find using a splint for a short time around a painful joint reduces pain and swelling by supporting the joint and letting it rest. Splints are used mostly on wrists and hands, but also on ankles and feet. A doctor or a physical or occupational therapist can help a person choose a splint and make sure it fits properly.

Other ways to reduce stress on joints include

Medications

Most people who have rheumatoid arthritis take medications. Some drugs only provide relief for pain; others reduce inflammation. Still others, called disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs or DMARDs, can often slow the course of the disease.

Early treatment with powerful drugs and drug combinations -- including biologic response modifiers and DMARDs -- instead of single drugs may help prevent the disease from progressing and greatly reduce joint damage.

Surgery

In some cases, a doctor will recommend surgery to restore function or relieve pain in a damaged joint. Surgery may also improve a person's ability to perform daily activities. Joint replacement and tendon reconstruction are two types of surgery available to patients with severe joint damage.

Routine Monitoring and Ongoing Care

Regular medical care is important to monitor the course of the disease, determine the effectiveness and any negative effects of medications, and change therapies as needed.

Monitoring typically includes regular visits to the doctor. It also may include blood, urine, and other laboratory tests and x rays.

Monitor Osteoporosis Risk

People with rheumatoid arthritis may want to discuss preventing osteoporosis with their doctors as part of their long-term, ongoing care. Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones become weakened and fragile. Having rheumatoid arthritis increases the risk of developing osteoporosis for both men and women, particularly if a person takes corticosteroids. Such patients may want to discuss with their doctors the potential benefits of calcium and vitamin D supplements or other treatments for osteoporosis.

See What is Osteoporosis? to learn more about this disease.