Everything you need to know about living well with rheumatoid arthritis
You may be wondering, what is rheumatoid arthritis? Below, we explore what causes rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, rheumatoid arthritis treatments and ways to live well with this condition. Remember, you are not alone, and there are many sources of support available to you.
Any medical information provided here is for informational purposes and does not replace medical advice given to you by a medical professional. If you are concerned that you may have any of the symptoms discussed below, please see your GP.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes long-term inflammation in the body, usually to the joints. It can also affect other areas of the body such as the respiratory system. It is very different from osteoarthritis, which is caused by wear and tear to the joints.
Getting a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis may take some time, but there are lots of rheumatoid arthritis treatments available now that can help you live well with the condition.
Around 400,000 people in the UK have rheumatoid arthritis, and women are twice as likely to have the condition compared to men, but it affects people of all ages.
For more information on rheumatoid arthritis, visit the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society website, which includes a rheumatoid arthritis explanation video.
Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by the body’s own immune system. Our immune system is designed to protect the body from outside threats, such as viruses, bacteria, germs, foreign bodies etc. For a person with rheumatoid arthritis, their system has started attacking the body, mistaking the body’s joints for a threat.
Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation around the joints, because the immune system damages the synovial lining of the joint. Fluid builds up in this area and when inflammation goes down, the joint can become permanently damaged, misshapen or worn away.
Experts are not sure why this process occurs for some people and not others, but they have identified certain rheumatoid arthritis triggers such as:
Makes you more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis, and makes symptoms more severe if you do develop the condition. For more information on smoking and rheumatoid arthritis, download this leaflet.
For more information about how the joints are affected and what causes rheumatoid arthritis, visit the Versus Arthritis website.
Everyone will experience rheumatoid arthritis symptoms differently, and this will depend upon where in the body their joints are affected. They may also find their symptoms vary each day, with flare-ups occurring every so often. Some people find that cold weather, strenuous movements, and even some foods can make their symptoms worse and act as rheumatoid arthritis triggers for them. There are many treatments available that help relieve symptoms. Not everyone will have all of the symptoms we discuss here. If you feel that you do have some of these, please see your GP.
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis usually include:
• Joint pain
• Swelling of the joints, which may also feel warm or hot to the touch
• Feeling stiff, often in the morning
• Feeling tired
• Feeling depressed or irritable due to the pain
• Feeling as though you have flu e.g. tired, aching and with poor temperature control
Many people find that the smaller joints in their body, such as their fingers, knuckles and feet are affected first, but any joint could be affected.
Some people may find their symptoms cause difficulties bending, gripping, sitting comfortably, getting in and out of a bed or chair, using the toilet/bath/shower, or many other activities. There are rheumatoid arthritis aids to help with these activities which we talk about later in this guide.
Some people also experience the following:
• Weight loss
• Eye inflammation
• Lumps around the joints
• Inflammation of other organs or blood vessels – this is quite rare
• Carpal tunnel syndrome
• Permanent joint damage or deformed joints
Symptoms may start slowly and many people don’t realise their aches and pains have a more serious underlying cause for some time, but it is important to obtain a diagnosis as soon as possible to avoid longer-term problems such as those listed above.
Rheumatoid arthritis sometimes takes a while to diagnose correctly because many different conditions cause similar symptoms such as stiff joints. The condition cannot be identified by just a simple test, and instead involves a physical exam, and combination of x-rays, scans and blood tests. For more information on rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, visit the NHS website.
Many people with a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis are able to live well with the condition, especially with early treatment. The condition cannot be cured, but treatment can help reduce symptoms, prevent damage to the joints, reduce pain and help to avoid permanent disability or deformity. Treatment can prevent the condition worsening and many people are able to lead full and active lives with the right care and support. It may take some time to find the right medication to suit you, and some people do still experience frequent pain or discomfort.
Medication is usually the main treatment option for people with rheumatoid arthritis, and your GP or specialist arthritis team are likely to prescribe you tablets in the form of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) such as methotrexate. These stop damage to the immune system. If these are not working for you, you may also be prescribed biological treatments such as etanercept or infliximab which are injected into the bloodstream.
Some people additionally use corticosteroid, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and painkillers to help reduce pain.
Some people may need to undergo surgery for rheumatoid arthritis, which may include minor surgeries such as relieving pressure on the nerves or removing tissue that is badly inflamed and damaged. Some people may need to have major surgery to replace their joints, if these are so damaged that they are causing disability or constant pain; for example, a person may require a hip or knee replacement. For more information about these surgeries, see the NHS web page about hip replacement surgery or knee replacement surgery.
You may also be referred to a physiotherapist, who is trained to support you in keeping muscles strong and joints flexible. Complementary medicine such as massage and acupuncture, may also help relaxation, reduce stress and improve mood. Podiatrists can help with caring for your feet.
Living with a long term condition, especially one that may cause pain, can be challenging at times. Receiving a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis may feel overwhelming at first, but it is important to remember that with the right treatment, support and self-care, you are likely to be able to overcome challenges, enjoy life, and continue doing many of the things you enjoy.
Here, we discuss various aspects of living with rheumatoid arthritis, such as managing pain, products for rheumatoid arthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis exercises.
Having rheumatoid arthritis is likely to affect your life to some degree. It is a long term condition, but it is treatable. Everybody experiences the condition differently. Many people are able to work, exercise, and undertake their usual hobbies and activities. Other people may find these things more challenging, and their condition may result in some difficulties or disabilities. You may need to listen to your body more and rest when you feel tired or in pain.
The National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society provides many stories from real people who have the condition, which you may be interested in.
If you are finding daily activities around the home, such as getting around, personal care or household chores, more difficult, you may wish to have an assessment from an Occupational Therapist (OT). An OT may be able to recommend different ways to do things, with or without the use of specialist equipment, often referred to as ‘daily living aids’. NRS Healthcare are experts in daily living aids, and have a team of Occupational Therapists that can help you find the right products to meet your needs. Read on to find out more about daily living aid products for rheumatoid arthritis.
PLEASE NOTE: our Expert Advice Service can only give advice about equipment and products which may help you to live more independently. They cannot give any advice on medications or treatments for symptoms of this condition.
It is really important for a person with rheumatoid arthritis to exercise regularly, in order to keep their muscles strong and joints flexible. Many people find that low impact, aerobic exercises such as swimming, aqua aerobics or hydrotherapy are beneficial, because there is little impact on the joints whilst exercising in water. Some people feel that exercise is difficult for them because of their symptoms and pain. If this is the case for you, you may wish to visit your GP and request a referral to a physiotherapist, who will be able to find suitable rheumatoid arthritis exercises that you feel able to do.
Eating healthily is essential to ensure our bodies and minds function to their best ability, so for people with a long term condition such as rheumatoid arthritis, it is important to eat a varied, balanced diet. Being overweight or obese will also put more strain on the joints, so it is advisable to keep to a healthy weight. For tips on how to eat well, visit the Arthritis Research UK website.
It is thought that a diet with lots of vitamin C, low levels of saturated fat, and high levels of good, unsaturated fats (such as those found in some fish) are beneficial to the body if it is experiencing inflammation. Some people report that certain foods cause flare-ups of their condition.
Some people take supplements for rheumatoid arthritis, such as omega 3 capsules, fish body oil, glucosamine and turmeric. There is little evidence to show that these actually improve symptoms, but people do report feeling better.
We recommend discussing with your GP before embarking on any rheumatoid arthritis diet or rheumatoid arthritis supplements regime.
You may be wondering; can I still work with rheumatoid arthritis? Yes, it is entirely possible for many people to continue to work if they have this condition. You may require support and understanding from your employer, and they are legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to the tasks required of you or your working hours due to your healthcare condition. For example, if you find your pain is worse in the mornings, you may wish to start your working day later where possible.
Visit the Versus Arthritis website for more advice about working with arthritis. Some people do find that their condition means they are no longer able to work or stay in the job they used to do, which may be difficult to deal with or may feel like a relief. Everyone will feel differently, but if you are finding the transition difficult, you may wish to speak to your GP or a local arthritis support group. Read on for more about rheumatoid arthritis support.
We hope this guide to rheumatoid arthritis has been helpful to you. We have covered many aspects of living with the condition, but there are lots of other sources of information that you may wish to access. If you are finding living with rheumatoid arthritis to be challenging, it may help you to talk about your situation and experiences with other people who have the condition. Below, we provide a list of groups you may wish to join, and websites that provide further information.
This guide is not intended to replace any medical advice or information you have been given and if you are concerned about anything you have read in this guide, please discuss with your GP.
Versus Arthritis Forum – an online forum from one of the leading UK arthritis charities, where people can connect to talk about their conditions
Arthritis Forum – a patient-led group for people with various types of arthritis to share stories and experiences
Rheumatoid Arthritis Forum – a Facebook group for people around the world affected by rheumatoid arthritis, to share and support each other
Arthritis Action – a charity providing information about arthritis as well as many personalised support services for members e.g. access to healthcare professionals, diet advice and local support groups
Arthritis Care – a UK charity providing online information, an online community, local support groups and a helpline
Arthritis Research UK – a leading UK charity providing a wealth of information about all arthritic conditions and advice about all aspects of living with them, as well as funding research
Disabled Living Foundation – a charity providing independent advice about equipment for disabled people
Disability Rights UK – a UK charity providing support to people of all ages with disabilities, to access work, education, learn new skills and live independently
National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society – a UK charity specifically focussed on rheumatoid arthritis, which provides publications, online information, mobile self-management app, a support helpline and local support groups
NHS Choices – a source of medical information on rheumatoid arthritis as well as related conditions, including symptoms, treatments and diagnosis, and general health and wellbeing advice
Although we always try to explain things as simply and as clearly as possible, sometimes it’s necessary to use the correct medical terminology. Medical terms are often known for being tricky to pronounce and if you’re not an expert in the subject, they can also be a little difficult to understand. Below, we’ve put together a list of terms used on this page along with a brief explanation of what they mean to help make your understanding of rheumatoid arthritis as straightforward as possible.
– a condition caused by lack of haemoglobin and red blood cells, which may be a result of low iron levels
– where the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells in the body, mistaking them for viruses or hazards
– these are drug treatments that are used to treat the cause of illnesses like arthritis e.g. they act on the immune system rather than just trying to stop symptoms
– anti-inflammatory steroid medication such as hydrocortisone, which treats allergies and inflammation caused by conditions such as asthma, eczema and arthritis
Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
– medications used to treat arthritic conditions by slowing down their progression and reducing inflammation and other symptoms
– a drug that some people with arthritis respond to, which blocks the proteins in the body that cause arthritis inflammation
– a supplement which is taken to ease joint pain
– a medication for arthritis that is given by a drip in a person’s arm, for health conditions that cause inflammation such as arthritis, which block the protein being produced in the body which is causing the inflammation
– a joint is the point where bones in the body meet each other, most of which contain fluid to help them move smoothly
– disease modifying medication for arthritis and cancer patients, which comes in tablet or injection form and reduces the over activity of a person’s immune system which is causing their health condition
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
– a medication such as ibuprofen, which is used to reduce inflammation and pain by blocking proteins in the body
– fatty acid found in some foods such as fish, which helps reduce inflammation in the body and is available as a diet supplement
– the organs in the body responsible for breathing in oxygen, taking it round the body and exhaling carbon dioxide, including, for example, the lungs
– this is a protective membrane made of delicate tissue, found around the joints
– a spice used in Indian cooking, which is thought to have numerous health benefits including being antioxidant and fighting inflammation, which is available as a high strength tablet or powder supplement