woman stretching shoulder

Managing Rheumatoid Arthritis

April 26, 2023 | Rheumatic Disease


Have you been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)? Over the years, patient care has changed significantly and advancements in RA treatments have improved the ability to control RA. Treatment has come a long way!

RA is not curable, but it is very treatable—and it’s not just about medication. Once you are diagnosed with RA it is important to learn as much as you can about the disease and your treatment options.

If you have RA, you and your rheumatologist will work together as a team to create your treatment plan to help you cope with and manage your symptoms.

Treatment Goals

It is essential to understand your RA treatment goals and the consequences of not following a treatment plan. Remember, it is a two-way street between you and your provider, and the treatment plan is long term, including both medicine and your commitment to lifestyle changes.

Your treatment goals may include:

  • Reduce joint pain and swelling
  • Maintain and/or improve joint function
  • Prevent or slow disease process

Some examples of lifestyle changes that may help you reach these goals include:

Morning Stretches
To reduce morning stiffness, wake up at least half an hour earlier to warm up your joints and loosen up before starting your day.

A healthy diet is critical to managing RA—this will help to support your clinical treatment (keep reading for more on diet and lifestyle).

Monitoring and Communication

Monitoring your body's response to medications and attending regular follow-up appointments with your rheumatologist are critical to your care. Be sure to discuss your monitoring and communication plan with your treating provider so they can tailor your plan specifically to your treatment needs.

A monitoring schedule depends on which medications your treating rheumatologist prescribes. Your provider will discuss your progress with you and adjust your medication as needed.

Monitoring and communication may include:

  • Periodic blood work updates
  • Eye doctor visits
  • Bone density X-rays, especially if you are taking steroids
  • Tracking and reporting your symptoms

(Reach out before your visit and do not wait until your follow up appointment. Prescription adjustments can be made even before your next scheduled visit. Take your medication as directed and try not to skip a dose.)

It’s More Than Medicine

Living with rheumatoid arthritis is not only about taking your medication and following up with your provider regularly. You must consider lifestyle changes that will help support treatment while caring for your physical and mental health.

Eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight is especially important. Too many fat cells release cytokines leading to more inflammation making RA symptoms worse. Added weight puts more pressure on your joints. Discuss weight/diet goals with your provider. Here are some suggestions:


  • Anti-inflammatory foods are rich in antioxidants, which help control inflammation
  • Think fresh and avoid processed foods
  • Drink plenty of water (calculate half of your body weight to determine the number of ounces you need each day)
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Make a meal plan each week so your food is measured, ready and prepared
  • Portion control - your plate should look ½ full of vegetables and a ¼ each of meat and carbohydrates

Exercise can help relieve everyday symptoms of arthritis. Moving keeps your joints mobile.

  • Exercise can boost your balance and flexibility, improve your energy levels, and lift your mood to help you regain control of your well-being
  • Get moving! Try stretching, strengthening exercises, and low-impact aerobic exercises like walking, swimming, tai chi, yoga, and riding a stationary bike—all good choices.

Getting enough sleep helps to reduce fatigue and gives you more energy. Try relaxation exercises and stretches at the end of the day to help you fall asleep more easily.

Mental Health
Mental health is important since rheumatoid arthritis can cause both anxiety and depression. Be sure to take time to rest during the day, consider meditation, and seek professional help if you are struggling.

Physical Therapy
An occupational and physical therapist can review ways to protect your joints and show you how to use your joints for everyday tasks correctly and safely.

Pay attention to your posture. Keep your shoulders back and relaxed and do not lock your knees. Take frequent breaks if you sit for prolonged periods of time. Your joints can stiffen up if you sit for too long. Alternate between standing and sitting if you can.

Beyond Your Joints

RA is not only about joint pain. It can affect other parts of your body and lead to serious health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and periodontal disease. You should treat your joint pain, but you must also treat your overall health.

Health risks associated with RA:

Heart Disease
People with RA have an increased risk of heart disease. Monitor your blood pressure and your cholesterol.

Periodontal Disease
Periodontal disease is common in rheumatoid arthritis patients. See your dentist regularly to help prevent periodontal disease. Use an electric toothbrush and do not forget to floss every day.

Avoid smoking. Smoking can lead to inflammation and a wide range of health issues.

Advancements in RA treatments bring new hope to individuals living with rheumatoid arthritis. It will take a team effort between you and your rheumatologist to build a plan to help you manage your RA. With their support and these tips, you can successfully manage your disease!

Senada Arabelovic, DO

About the Author

Senada Arabelovic, DO

Senada Arabelovic, DO, is a practicing rheumatologist in the Division of Rheumatology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA. Dr. Arabelovic is also a member of the American College of Rheumatology’s Communications and Marketing Committee.

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