Life with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can present a variety of challenges, but people with RA can experience productive and fulfilling lives by managing their condition in proactive ways. To enjoy your best life with RA, it’s important to recognize ways to maintain a healthy weight, manage stress, communicate effectively about your condition, and take care of family and financial responsibilities.
Members of myRAteam often talk about how the condition has impacted their lives. “There are many tools and a lifestyle to this disease — from diet and exercise to braces, compression clothing, heating pads, lotions, and more," one myRAteam member wrote. "It’s like building a lifestyle with an emergency toolkit.”
RA is a chronic condition that can cause swelling, pain, stiffness in joints, joint damage, fatigue, and symptoms that can affect the heart, lungs, eyes, and other parts of the body. The condition is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue.
Medical treatment options can help you manage RA symptoms, and it is important to maintain your treatment plan as you adjust to life with the condition. You can also consider employing the following strategies to optimize your life as you manage rheumatoid arthritis.
Research shows that consuming a healthy diet, exercising, managing stress, and avoiding smoking can improve symptoms and slow disease progression of RA.
Numerous studies in recent years have shown that diet and nutrition are significant factors in both reducing the risk of developing RA and slowing the disease’s progression. A healthy diet can also improve heart health and help you maintain a healthy weight. People with RA have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and dietary recommendations for RA feature foods that are low in saturated fats.
Dietary recommendations for people with RA include:
Some supplements have also shown benefits for people with RA. Recommended supplements include vitamin D and probiotics, which are compounds with live microorganisms that improve gut bacteria. Discuss appropriate doses of supplements with your health care team and get referrals for dietitians and nutritionists. It is important to make sure supplements will not interfere with any medication you may already be taking.
Limited mobility, decreased range of motion, and joint pain and discomfort often deter people with RA from exercising. But exercise has numerous benefits and can reduce the risk for heart disease. Exercising can also increase muscle mass and offset the effects of cachexia, a wasting of muscles that can occur as a complication of RA.
Exercise has been shown to improve mental health outcomes and strengthen tendons, which support joints. Exercising also improves range of motion, flexibility, and balance to help you avoid falls. Physical activity and exercise can help you with your pain management.
Weight-bearing or resistance exercises — such as walking, gardening, and using elliptical machines — can improve bone strength and help prevent osteoarthritis, which is more prevalent among people with RA.
Some exercises suitable for many people with RA include:
Talk to your rheumatologist about referrals for physical therapists who can provide guidance on exercises that are appropriate for RA.
Stress is associated with an increase in disease activity in RA. Managing mental health conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression may help reduce symptoms like pain and fatigue.
If you need help coping with stress or other mental health symptoms, talk to your doctor about options for stress management, such as:
People with RA should avoid smoking, which is linked to more severe RA. Smoking can also interact negatively with drugs that are used for RA treatment and may reduce their effectiveness. Smoking is associated with numerous health conditions, such as heart disease and lung disease — including interstitial lung disease, which is a complication of RA.
People with RA may struggle with how to discuss their condition with others. Talking to family members and friends can be different from talking to co-workers.
Members of myRAteam frequently express frustration regarding family and friends who don’t seem to understand what RA is and how it affects the lives of those who have it. “My significant other is tired of me being ill — limited understanding,” one member wrote. Another said, “Sometimes we feel alone because we feel nobody understands what we’re going through.”
Here are some ways to talk about RA with people you are close to:
You may want to be more discreet with co-workers about your condition. You have a right to medical privacy at work. Here are some tips for talking about your condition at the workplace:
Family dynamics can change when someone has RA. Household tasks can become difficult at times, and some responsibilites may change. Family members may need to provide medical care and offer more emotional support than they did in the past. Open and clear communication is important so expectations are well understood by the family member with RA and by those family members providing extra support.
Parents with RA may struggle when lifting a baby or small child. They can also face challenges when trying to maintain enough energy for the demands of parenthood.
Discuss these issues with your spouse and older children, and make adjustments to how you share parenting with your partner. Single parents with RA may want to reach out to extended family and friends for help with young children or seek outside help.
Research shows that RA affects work productivity. People with the condition miss an average of four hours of work every two weeks. By talking to your supervisor or HR administrator, you may be able to arrange for workplace accommodations such as:
For more information on accommodations that are supported by the ADA, you can consult this resource on accommodations for people with arthritis. You may also want to talk to your health care providers about a referral for an occupational therapist.
If you are unable to continue working due to RA and have been out of work for more than 12 months, you may be eligible for government disability benefits. Advanced RA is among the qualifying conditions to receive disability benefits, according to the Social Security Administration. If you decide to apply for disability benefits, you will need close cooperation from your doctor to verify the limitation you are experiencing with your condition.
Medical advances in recent decades have led to better treatments, such as biologic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and synthetic DMARDs like methotrexate. But these developments have also led to higher drug costs. Many people with RA face the challenge of paying for drugs when insurance may not provide adequate coverage.
While drug costs have gone up, hospitalization costs for people with RA have gone down, due to the effectiveness of better medications. Nonetheless, paying for medication can be a significant financial burden for some people.
“Some of these RA meds are so expensive,” one myRAteam member wrote. Another said, “RA is an expensive illness.”
Costs for your RA treatment will be much more affordable if you have some form of public or private health insurance, including the following:
If you do not have health insurance, or if you have insurance but need further support, you may find resources within your state to help cover medication costs. Some of the programs available include:
You may want to talk with a Medicare advisor or social worker about programs you may be eligible for that can help offset the costs of RA treatments.
Whether traveling to see family, for leisure, or for work, people with RA can take practical measures to make travel easier and manage arthritis pain. Here are some tips that may make travel easier for you:
Talk to your health care team if you are planning to travel so your trip won’t interrupt your treatment plan. Carefully assess what medications or supplies you will need for traveling, and organize essentials well in advance of your departure date.
On myRAteam, the social network for people with rheumatoid arthritis and their loved ones, more than 157,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with RA.
Do you have questions or tips about living with rheumatoid arthritis? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.