Rheumatoid arthritis can be life changing. You may need long-term treatment to control the symptoms and joint damage.
Depending on how much pain and stiffness you feel and how much joint damage you have, simple daily tasks may become difficult or take longer to do.
You may need to adapt the way you do everyday tasks, or make changes to your lifestyle, to help you manage your condition.
Here are some things you can do to help.
Self care is an important part of daily life. It involves taking responsibility for your own health and wellbeing with support from people involved in your care.
It includes what you do every day to stay fit and maintain good physical and mental health, prevent illness and accidents, and manage minor ailments and long-term conditions.
People who have a long-term condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis, can benefit enormously from being supported to care for themselves. They can live longer, have a better quality of life, and be more active and independent.
Take your medicine
It's important to take your medicine as instructed, even if you start to feel better, as medicine can help prevent flare-ups and reduce the risk of further problems, such as joint damage.
If you have any questions or concerns about the medicine you're taking or side effects, talk to your healthcare team.
It may also be useful to read the information leaflet that comes with the medicine, as this tells you about possible interactions with other medicines or supplements.
Check with your healthcare team before taking any over-the-counter remedies, such as painkillers or nutritional supplements. These may interfere with your medicine.
As rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term condition, you'll be in contact with your healthcare team regularly so they can check if your condition is being well controlled and if your treatment is right for you.
You may have a disease activity score (DAS) measured regularly, which can help your healthcare team to decide on the best treatment.
Find out more about the DAS score on the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) website.
The more your healthcare team know, the more they can help you, so discuss any concerns you have with them.
Reducing your medicine
Some people find their symptoms go away or get much better. If your symptoms stay better for at least 1 year without needing to take steroids, your treatment can be reviewed.
Your doctor may suggest slowly reducing your dose of medicine, then seeing if you can stop taking it.
You'll be monitored during this time. If your symptoms come back, you'll need to start taking disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) straight away.
Try to get plenty of rest during a flare-up, when your joints can be particularly painful and inflamed.
Putting further strain on very swollen and painful joints can often make the pain and inflammation worse.
Healthy eating and exercise
Regular exercise and a healthy diet are recommended for everyone, not just people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Exercising regularly can help relieve stress, help keep your joints mobile, and strengthen the muscles supporting your joints.
Exercise can also help you lose weight if you're overweight, which can put extra strain on your joints.
But it's important to find a balance between rest and exercise. Rest will make inflamed joints feel more comfortable, but without movement your joints will stiffen and your muscles will become weaker.
Find the best activities and the right balance for you. It's usually best to increase the amount of exercise you do gradually.
If a particular activity causes your joints to become warm and swollen, or it causes severe pain, then stop and rest. If it does not cause problems, then it is usually fine to continue.
If a particular activity always causes a flare-up, it's best to avoid it and find an alternative.
High-impact activities, such as running or contact sports like rugby and football, are more likely to cause problems.
Try low-impact activities that put less strain on your joints, such as swimming, cycling, walking and aqua aerobics.
If you need more guidance, a physiotherapist is a good person to advise you on suitable types of exercise.
Taking control of rheumatoid arthritis will help you cope with its impact on your lifestyle.
A self-management programme specifically for people with rheumatoid arthritis has been developed by the NRAS.
The 6-week programme can help you learn more about your condition and provide practical tips on how to manage everyday life, such as:
- how to get the best from your medicine
- techniques to manage pain
- goal-setting exercises
Talk to others
Many people find it helpful to talk to others in a similar position. There may be a local support group where you can meet others with the same condition as you.
Call the NRAS helpline free on 0800 298 7650 from Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 4.30pm. You can speak to a trained rheumatoid arthritis adviser. You can also arrange to speak to someone who has rheumatoid arthritis.
Or call the Versus Arthritis free helpline on 0800 5200 520 from Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm.
It can be hard to deal with the unpredictable nature of rheumatoid arthritis.
Some days the pain and stiffness will be much worse than others, and there may be no way of knowing when a flare-up will happen.
The difficult nature of rheumatoid arthritis can mean some people develop depression or feelings of stress and anxiety.
Sometimes these feelings can be related to poorly controlled pain or fatigue.
Living with a long-term condition makes you more likely to have emotions such as frustration, fear, anger and resentment.
Speak to your healthcare team if you're struggling to deal with your feelings about your condition.
They may be able to offer medicine or suggest mental health services that may help.
Starting and raising a family
If you're taking medicines for rheumatoid arthritis, let your healthcare team know if you want to start a family or you're worried about becoming pregnant while taking medicine.
Some medicines, such as methotrexate, leflunomide and biological treatments should not be taken by men or women while they're trying for a baby.
Your heathcare team will work with you to try to keep your rheumatoid arthritis under control while you're trying to get pregnant.
Babies and young children are physically and mentally demanding for any parent, but particularly if you have rheumatoid arthritis.
If you're struggling to cope, it may help to talk to other people in the same situation as you.
You may also be able to get extra support from your health visitor or occupational therapist to help you manage your young family.
Sex and relationships
Pain, discomfort and changes in the way you feel can affect your sex life.
Your self-esteem or thoughts about how you look may affect your confidence.
Although many people find it difficult to talk about such private issues, there are resources that may help you.
Talking to your partner or GP about the impact of rheumatoid arthritis on your sexuality and sexual relationships may help.
Money and benefits
If you have to stop work or reduce work to part-time because of your rheumatoid arthritis, you may find it hard to cope financially.
You may be entitled to one or more of the following types of financial support:
- if you have a job but cannot work because of your condition, you're entitled to Statutory Sick Pay from your employer for up to 28 weeks
- if you do not have a job and cannot work because of your condition, you may be entitled to Employment and Support Allowance
- if you're aged 64 or under and need help with personal care or have difficulty walking, you may be eligible for a Personal Independence Payment
- if you're aged 65 or over, you may be able to get Attendance Allowance
- if you're caring for someone with rheumatoid arthritis, you may be entitled to Carer's Allowance
You may also be eligible for other benefits if you have children living at home or a low household income.
Paying for your medicines
If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you're likely to need repeat prescriptions of medicine to keep your condition under control.
Rheumatoid arthritis is not listed as a medical condition that entitles a person to free prescriptions in England.
But you may be able to get your medicine for free if your condition falls under the category of "a continuing physical disability which means the person cannot go out without the help of another person".
You're also entitled to free prescriptions if you're 60 or over, or if you receive either:
- Income Support
- income-based Jobseeker's Allowance
- income-related Employment and Support Allowance.
If you are not entitled to free prescriptions, you may find it cheaper to buy a prescription prepayment certificate (PPC).
This is effectively a prescription "season ticket" that covers all your prescriptions over a 3- or 12-month period.
Read more about help with prescription costs to see if you're entitled to free prescriptions.