There are many ways to manage the pain and discomfort of arthritis. For the thousands of people who live with this condition, finding different ways to manage the symptoms is vital to ensure they remain positive and able to continue enjoying life. Otherwise, they risk getting stuck in the ‘pain cycle’, progressively getting worse as they avoid movement and social interaction. Some of the things to try when breaking the pain cycle include gentle exercise, heat therapy, massage and group support.
What is Arthritis?
Arthritis is a condition that affects one in six people in Australia. It is not a disease, but it refers collectively to a group of diseases that affect the joints in the body. These different types of arthritis can affect you in different ways, but they will commonly result in pain, stiffness, swelling, and reduced movement.
There are many types of arthritis. Some of the most well-known include Osteoarthritis, Rheumatoid arthritis, Gout, and Ankylosing spondylitis.
Osteoarthritis (OA) affects the cartilage. Cartilage is the connective tissue found in the joints such as elbows, knees and ankles. It is firm tissue that cushions the area between bones. When cartilage is damaged or worn down, it can cause the bones to rub together, resulting in joint pain. Unfortunately, cartilage cells cannot repair and replicate like many other types of cells in the body. This means that Osteoarthritis is often a chronic and progressive condition.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. The body’s immune system is designed to recognise infection or foreign bodies and fight back to keep you healthy. When you have an autoimmune disease, your system attacks your healthy tissue. For people with Rheumatoid arthritis, their immune system attacks and damages the joints. This causes pain, swelling and stiffness.
What Causes Arthritis Pain?
Arthritis is a painful condition due to the damage that it inflicts upon the joints. Joints in the body – including those in your back, knees, hips, elbows, hands and feet – allow you to move easily. When these are compromised, it can become very uncomfortable and painful to do simple tasks.
Arthritis pain is caused by a combination of inflammation and joint damage. As in Osteoarthritis, the rubbing together of bones without cartilage cushioning can cause arthritic pain. Most forms of arthritis are also characterised by swelling, which can make the affected area feel tender to the touch and difficult to move.
The Pain Cycle
The pain cycle describes the way that people react and respond to chronic pain, such as the pain caused by arthritis. The idea is that pain and the stress associated with pain is self-perpetuating, trapping sufferers in a never-ending cycle that can be hard to break. However, there is a way out of the pain cycle.
Pain can affect many aspects of your life. When you are experiencing pain, you are less likely to do the things you enjoy, and more likely to fall into negative habits.
For example, when you are suffering from persistent or chronic pain, you may respond by being less active. This leads to a loss of muscle mass and general fitness, which causes further strain on the body. This physical stress starts to affect your mood, causing anxiety and frustration. These can lead to problems sleeping. As a result of these problems, you may take more medication than you otherwise would have. You are less social and physically active, leading to isolation and depression. This results in trouble in your personal relationships, time off work, and financial concerns. All of this continues in a vicious cycle as your body continues to deteriorate and your life becomes worse.
The alternative is often called the self-care cycle. This is when pain is appropriately and proactively managed so that you don’t get trapped in a pattern of mental and physical deterioration, and instead learn to appreciate life.
The self-care cycle begins with understanding your condition and setting some goals for your pain management. It allows you to plan and prioritise, so you don’t push your body too hard. This means you can undertake a careful exercise routine designed to strengthen your body and eat well to stay healthy. These activities improve your sleep and relieve anxiety. This leads to improvements in your mood and the ability to deal with frustration and negative thoughts. It allows you to sustain these positive changes and acknowledge where you are in your pain journey. This creates acceptance and improved pain relief.
What Can I do to Manage My Arthritis Pain?
Managing arthritis pain can be achieved through following some of the steps of the self-care cycle. Instead of becoming sedentary and avoiding the things you used to love due to pain in your joints, it’s important to find new ways to enjoy life that work with, and not against, your arthritis diagnosis. There are lots of things you can do to help manage your arthritis pain, both at home and with the aid of medical professionals.
One of the most powerful things you can do following an arthritis diagnosis is to find out as much information as you can. Developing a thorough understanding of your condition will help you to manage it more effectively, and it will give you the confidence that arthritis does not need to negatively affect your life.
As you live with the condition, your understanding will improve. You may notice certain movements that cause pain, or times of day that are more uncomfortable. Pay attention and take note of these so you can manage these difficult moments and take advantage of more pain-free times.
Maintaining a healthy diet will assist in managing your arthritis and improving your overall wellbeing. Certain foods can aid in reducing inflammation, such as leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, nuts, fatty fish and berries. These are full of healthy antioxidants.
Some foods that can make inflammation worse, and which should be limited, include white bread, pastries, fried food, soft drink and processed meat.
Certain supplements have been shown to assist in managing arthritis symptoms, by relieving pain and reducing stiffness. Some of the nutritional supplements you may want to try include:
- Fish oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids to help with inflammation
- Glucosamine, which is a component of cartilage
- Curcumin, which can also be found in turmeric, and which is an anti-inflammatory
- Vitamins D and K, which aid in bone health.
Always check with your doctor before starting a regime of supplements and use them to complement your medication rather than replace it.
Developing strength in your muscles can assist to reduce joint pain. When you are able to rely on the major muscles in your back and legs, there is less pressure placed on the joints in your spine, hips and knees. Simple, low-impact weight training can help to build muscle and keep your body strong.
As well as muscle strength, cardiovascular fitness is important following an arthritis diagnosis. Elevating the heart rate helps with overall wellbeing and prevents weight gain, which can negatively affect your arthritis. Additionally, cardio has been shown to have positive mental health benefits.
Improve Movement and Flexibility
Arthritis creates stiffness and soreness that can make it more difficult to do simple movements like bending over to pick things up or walking up stairs. Maintaining a range of movement and flexibility for as long as possible helps to keep you independent. Try exercises like yoga, tai chi, and gentle stretching to keep the body moving. Although your joints will be affected by arthritis, your muscles and tendons can remain flexible even as the condition progresses.
A large component of the pain cycle is stress, anxiety and depression. A good way to avoid low mood and negative thinking is to practice mindfulness and meditation. Meditation is a natural way of coping with pain and can improve your outlook on life. Just a few minutes of quiet reflection and intentional breathing will make a big difference.
Hot and cold therapy
Hot and cold treatments can provide pain relief and assist in managing chronic pain. A hot bath, shower, or even a heat pack on your sore area can reduce stiffness and feel soothing. Cold therapy, such as an ice pack, helps to reduce inflammation. You may find mornings especially difficult when you have arthritis, so starting your day with some hot or cold treatment could assist in getting you moving.
Additionally, there are creams and topical ointments available that create the sensation of heat on the skin and are specially designed to reduce swelling. You can purchase these from your local pharmacy.
An experienced massage therapist can target the painful parts of your body and soothe the muscles and joints with practiced massage techniques. Massage has been proven to reduce pain, relieve tension, and manage stress. At home, you can even practice self-massage to sore areas by applying pressure with your fingers and palms.
Acupuncture has been shown to assist in pain relief and reduction of inflammation. It is a Chinese medicinal practice that involves inserting thin needles into targeted points of the body, stimulating the immune system and promoting circulation. An acupuncturist will choose certain parts of your body to penetrate with the needles, which are so thin that they are not painful.
Especially if you struggle to stay active or you are finding your arthritis pain debilitating, visiting a physiotherapist is a good idea. They will help you develop an exercise program that works for you and can help pinpoint the source of pain. If you have any muscle issues, they will help identify these. They can also perform deep tissue massage.
All people living with arthritis will be prescribed medication by their doctor. This medication may be intended to manage the symptoms of arthritis, including pain and swelling, or it may try to slow the progression of the disease. In most cases, arthritis cannot be cured but can be treated effectively.
If you feel that your pain is not manageable with your current medication, you can speak to your doctor about changing your medicine or dosage. Avoid taking additional pain relief, like over-the-counter drugs, as these can have negative side effects when mixed with prescription medication.
Use mobility aids and grip tools
If you find that moving around your home or neighbourhood has become challenging due to pain and stiffness in your hips and knees, a walking frame or similar mobility aid may allow you to maintain your independence.
For people who experience arthritis in their fingers, opening and closing their hand can be very painful. This can result in difficulty picking up objects or engaging in activities that require holding things, like card games or jigsaw puzzles. Grip tools help to improve the functionality of the hands, and other aids can make your favourite things easier.
Join a support group
When you are first diagnosed with arthritis, it can feel quite isolating. But it’s important to remember that thousands of people have the same condition as you. Joining a support group can help you to connect to other people living with arthritis. You can share tips for pain management, insights into exercise and nutrition, and generally support each other. Support groups have been shown to assist in boosting people’s mental health when living with a chronic condition.
Get Help at Home
Home nursing services are a good idea if you are finding being at home by yourself difficult. Having an experienced nurse to help around the home, assist in everyday tasks, and even take you to doctor’s appointments, can make a big difference to your independence and keep you living happily in your own home for longer.
Arthritis is a painful condition that affects your joints and movement. But it is important that anyone living with arthritis learns the best ways to manage the pain and continue doing the things they love. Trying new pain management techniques, such as meditation, acupuncture or temperature therapy may change your life for the better. Pair these approaches with a prescribed medication regimen for the best management of arthritis pain.
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