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5 Tips To Manage Rheumatoid Arthritis Fatigue

Updated on October 12, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Manuel Penton, M.D.
Article written by
Joan Grossman

  • People with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) experience significantly more fatigue than the general population.
  • Lifestyle changes such as exercise and a healthy diet may help relieve RA fatigue.
  • Good communication with your doctor can help ensure you are getting the care you need to fight RA fatigue.

Many people with rheumatoid arthritis are eager for tips to help manage fatigue, one of the most commonly reported RA symptoms. In fact, more than 33,000 myRAteam members report experiencing fatigue, which can have a significant impact on quality of life.

“I’ve been very tired and fatigued (which makes it all worse). How do you all deal with fatigue? Any tips?” one myRAteam member asked. “Sometimes I think the fatigue is worse than the pain,” another member wrote.

Fatigue from RA can lead to drowsiness, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, and physical weakness. RA fatigue is much more than ordinary tiredness and can be both physically and emotionally draining. Chronic fatigue from RA can impact mental health and make daily life and physical activity overwhelming. People with RA experience fatigue levels between four and eight times higher than the general public.

People with RA often feel uncomfortable bringing up fatigue with their rheumatologists, or if they do, they can end up feeling dismissed or ignored. Fortunately, research on RA fatigue is expanding and standards of care for fatigue are improving. At the same time, there are proactive steps you can take to help manage fatigue and improve your overall health.

What Causes Fatigue in Rheumatoid Arthritis?

The causes of fatigue in RA are linked to the disease itself, along with related conditions that are commonly associated with RA. Chronic inflammation from disorders in the immune system may be a factor that leads to fatigue in people with RA. With inflammatory arthritis, such as RA, inflammation can cause feelings of sickness and lethargy.

Other symptoms and factors related to RA can also contribute to fatigue, including:

  • Joint pain
  • Depression
  • Disability from RA
  • Sleep disturbance, such as sleep apnea

A number of related health conditions — or comorbidities — that can occur with RA may increase fatigue as well, such as:

  • Asthma
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Diabetes
  • Anemia (low levels of red blood cells) — Can be a side effect of methotrexate, which lowers levels of folic acid (vitamin B9)
  • Fibromyalgia (a chronic condition that causes pain throughout the body)

5 Tips for Managing RA Fatigue

Despite the challenges RA fatigue may pose, you can help manage it and and improve your well-being by making lifestyle changes, practicing self-care, and communicating openly with your health care providers.

1. Increase Exercise and Physical Activity

Research shows that exercise can improve RA symptoms and help people with RA function with more energy. Stretching, short walks, aquatic therapy, and yoga are all recommended exercises for people with RA.

“Look for chair exercises on YouTube. I especially like chair tai chi and chair yoga,” one myRAteam member suggested. Another member wrote, “I have exercised with my RA for many years, and with that and medication, I don't get many flare-ups. I am 75 and I continue to walk and exercise.”

Appropriate routines for people with RA that incorporate exercises for range of motion, flexibility, aerobics, and strengthening can improve physical and mental health. Regular physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight, strengthen muscles and bones, and reduce the risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

Start slowly and build up your stamina over time. Talk to your health care team about exercise and ask for a referral to a physical therapist or occupational therapist who can develop an exercise program that is right for you, whether you like to go to the gym or prefer exercising at home.

“Have you discussed having hand therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy with your rheumatologist?” a myRAteam member asked. “They really helped me to be able to do everyday things.”

2. Eat a Healthy Diet

A healthy diet helps regulate energy highs and lows. Reducing sugar levels and pacing smaller meals throughout the day can help avoid reactive hypoglycemia, otherwise known as a sugar crash. Other healthy eating habits can also reduce fatigue, including:

  • Eating breakfast so you don’t get hungry (which depletes the body of fuel)
  • Drinking plenty of water to prevent fatiguing dehydration
  • Avoiding foods that might upset your stomach or cause heartburn that may lead to poor sleep

Your doctor can provide a referral to a nutritionist who can help design a healthy diet for you.

Another member said, “A healthy snack can give a boost — my favorites for that are unsalted nuts, dried apricots, or one or two dark chocolate candies.”

3. Practice Self-Care

Self-care is essential to managing RA fatigue. Knowing your limits and sticking to them is a good place to start. Sometimes, you may simply need to stop what you’re doing and sit down or take a rest.

“Try to rest more and don’t feel guilty,” said one myRAteam member. Another member said, “Pick one day a week just for you. Relax, sleep in, or take a nap. Even if you do work, take one day on the weekend for you.”

Keeping a schedule you know you can manage is one way to take care of yourself. Arrange your day to get the most done when you know you’ll have the most energy. One member wrote, “I do what I can in the morning because, if I don’t get my chores done early, I’m too tired in the afternoon. I try to rest more in the afternoon.”

4. Ask for the Help You Need

Often, the psychological anxiety of having an invisible illness — a condition other people do not immediately recognize — can add to a person’s fatigue. Letting loved ones and friends know about your fatigue can help you better manage daily activities and social interactions. Family members and friends may need guidance when it comes to offering help.

If your workday is difficult to manage, reach out to your supervisor or human resources manager to discuss work schedules, working from home, or other accommodations that can help you get your job done without it being too fatigue-inducing.

You may also want to ask your health care provider for a referral for psychological counseling. Counseling and therapy can help relieve anxiety and give you tools and techniques to manage stress, mood swings, and communication with others.

Research has shown that psychological therapy can relieve fatigue. In one rheumatology study, people with RA who participated in cognitive behavioral therapy reported feeling less tired. They also reported better sleep.

5. Talk Openly About Fatigue With Your Doctors

Maintaining your RA treatment plan is important for easing symptoms of tiredness and fatigue. By reducing inflammation, chronic pain, and disease activity, you may also reduce your fatigue symptoms. Research has found that treatment for RA with biologic drugs can lead to a small to moderate improvement in levels of fatigue.

Be sure you are getting the support you need from your health care team. If you’re experiencing persistent fatigue, it’s essential to let your doctor know. Talk to your doctor about other conditions you may have, such as anemia, which could be contributing to fatigue. You may need additional tests to determine if you have a coinciding condition.

Your doctor can also review and adjust medications, and determine if you might benefit from supplements, a sleep aid, or an antidepressant to help improve your energy levels. Always get medical advice before taking any new supplements.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On myRAteam, the social network for people with rheumatoid arthritis and their loved ones, more than 197,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with RA.

Do you have tips on how to manage fatigue? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Manuel Penton, M.D. is a medical editor at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about him here.
Joan Grossman is a freelance writer, filmmaker, and consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. Learn more about her here.

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