Dealing with the debilitating effects of RA, including morning stiffness? Here are some tips to help.
If you are living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), then you are likely familiar with stiff joints, particularly in the morning. And you are not alone. Recent reports show that around 90% of individuals with active RA who are not experiencing active RA.
So, what causes morning stiffness with RA?
Unfortunately, this remains a mystery. Although they do not completely understand the exact cause, some healthcare professionals believe that morning stiffness is a result of the body’s natural circadian rhythms. At night, the body increases its production of particular hormones, and in doing so, possibly triggers swelling that ends up causing stiff joints in the morning.
Seeing as how prolonged stiffness can affect your physical and emotional well being, one of the most beneficial things that you can do for yourself is to develop a slow and steady morning routine. Planning ahead to cope with morning stiffness can help you to act as soon as you wake up, thereby reducing stress and frustration.
Consider adding some or all of the following approaches to your morning routine as a way to increase your mobility and to manage stiff joints in the a.m:
- Do gentle and slow movement exercises – As soon as you wake up, consider starting your day by doing gentle and slow movement exercises to warm up your sleepy muscles and to ease your stiff joints. Do not pull or stretch your joints, but rather bend and extend them. In order to improve your body’s mobility, try motioning all of your joints, including your neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers, and knees.
- Do targeted stretches – While still in bed, you can do stretches specifically designed to target each affected joint. Move slowly, hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, and repeat 2-3 times. Most important, bare in mind that stretching should never be painful. If you require assistance, consider taking physical therapy to help create an exercise program personalized for you.
- Exercise on a regular basis – Regular exercise and stretching throughout the day can help to improve joint function, prevent muscle wasting and weakness, as well as boost your mood. Consider taking up swimming, cycling, yoga, tai-chi, or another type of workout. Research shows that individuals with RA who exercise experience less pain than those who lack in physical activity. Remember, as little as 5 minutes of exercise can alleviate your symptoms.
- Use heat therapy – Warm water stimulates blood flow to stiff muscles and joints. Therefore, taking a nice, warm bath in the morning for 10-20 minutes can ease the stiffness and loosen your joints. While in the bath, continue to gently move your joints and massage them with a washcloth. Another approach that works well is applying heating pads. These pads can be found in most pharmacies and they can provide temporary relief from RA-related pain and inflammation in the body.
- Eat a light, but nutritious breakfast – Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and if you are living with RA, eating a light but nutritious breakfast every morning is a must. RA makes your body attack its own joints and at the same time, it is repairing damage from these attacks. Therefore, your body needs fuel so that it can function properly and get your joints moving. Vitamin D and calcium are especially important for bone and joint health, so look for foods that contain rich amounts of these nutrients.
- Try an anti-inflammatory diet – Consider removing certain inflammatory foods from your diet. This includes processed foods and refined sugars. Instead, replace them with whole foods that are rich in fiber. These will help to prevent and ease the symptoms related to RA, such as inflammation, pain, and stiffness.
- Take medication – Certain medications, such as over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, can help to control the symptoms of morning stiffness by reducing inflammation. However, for other types of medications, you may require a prescription for your doctor. Talk to him or her about your options. Seeing as how each type of medication comes with its own benefits and risks, you and your doctor can find which one is right for you.
- Keep medication next to your bed – Since joint stiffness commonly occurs in the morning, keeping medication next to your bed, such as on a nightstand, may be beneficial. This way, you can take your medication as soon as you wake up, allowing some time for your symptoms to ease up before you have to get up.
- Apply a joint cream – At any pharmacy, you can find numerous types of joint creams, such as diclofenac gel. Applying a joint cream to your stiff joints first thing in the morning can help to ease inflammation and it should be able to get your joints moving.
- Make necessary arrangements at work - For some individuals, joint stiffness only lasts for the early hours of the morning, while for others, it lasts throughout the entire day. On such days when your symptoms are more severe, make necessary arrangements at work. Take breaks to move around to loosen your joints or ask for the option to work from home.
A smoother start to your day
Morning stiffness is a serious, widespread issue among individuals with RA. However, with proper planning and the right approaches, you can effectively reduce RA flares and make your symptoms easier to manage. During those mornings when your joints are stiff and painful, do not be afraid to ask for help from your family or friends. You may be surprised as to how willing they are to lend a helping hand.
Above all, take it easy. Overdoing it today can lead to more stiffness tomorrow. Adjust the intensity of activity if it feels as if you are putting too much pressure on your joints and try to identify and reduce RA triggers as much as possible. Moreover, work with your physician to find the appropriate medication, and work with a physical therapist to create a unique exercise program to achieve the best possible results. Make time for yourself every morning, every day, and stop to focus on your breathing every now and then. By putting less stress on your mind, you put less stress on your body.