7 Ways to Protect Your Joints With Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can cause various types of damage, including the erosion of cartilage in the joints and the weakening of ligaments, muscles, and bone near the joints, says Susan M. Goodman, MD, a rheumatologist and associate director of the Inflammatory Arthritis Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. In turn, this can contribute to joint instability and the loss of joint function. Use these strategies to help protect your joints as you work on managing your RA.

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Reach and Maintain Your Goal Weight

“The best thing you can do to maintain healthy joints is to avoid excessive impact, which is the most common way to damage joints,” Dr. Goodman says. “Impact force is transmitted across the joint with use, and the more weight, the greater the impact. Being overweight increases the impact on the weight-bearing joints, in particular the knees, but the feet and ankles are also susceptible to this.” Incidentally, she points out, the weight doesn’t have to be your own body weight. Carrying a heavy bag or backpack can also contribute to joint damage, so use a roller bag whenever possible.

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Think About Your Movements

Static positions such as prolonged sitting can cause increased joint pain and stiffness, says Jeanne M. Harper, OTR/L, an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist at Skills 4 Living Therapy in Portola, California. She recommends moving frequently, such as every 30 to 60 minutes, which can help increase the circulation of synovial joint fluids and lessen pain and stiffness. While movement is generally a good thing, watch out for heavy lifting, which can be painful and cause excessive strain. Enlist help to lift heavy items and get advice from an occupational therapist on safer ways to lift, manipulate, and carry objects for everyday activities, as well as how to store objects and set up your general environment at home and at work to prevent excess reaching and bending.

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Wear the Right Shoes

While that cute pair of high heels might be just the thing to top off an outfit, try to refrain. “Choose shoes with good support and room in the toes,” says Krista Schofield, MOTR/L, an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “You want to keep heels low,” she says. “If you must wear them, make sure they’re no more than 1 to 1 1/2 inches tall. And shoes are best if they have rubber soles.” Schofield also recommends finding a great pair of athletic shoes, and for people with RRheumatoid Arthritis in their hands, getting ones with a closure other than traditional laces. Finally, custom-made orthotic inserts for your shoes can relieve pressure, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

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Eat Bone- and Joint-Healthy Foods

The effect of diet on RA and whether there is a connection between particular foods and inflammation, which is linked to Rheumatoid Arthritis, is an area that’s still being explored by researchers, according to the Arthritis Foundation (AF). A healthy diet in general — including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — may help reduce inflammation, and fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, and mackerel are top choices. Research suggests that fish oil may reduce the pain of tender joints and morning stiffness, which could possibly reduce the amount of medication needed. Before taking any dietary supplements, however, be sure to consult with your doctor.

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Exercise Smart

Warming up before exercising is important for everyone, but particularly for people with RA who have stiffness in their joints, Schofield says. Start with gentle stretching and light activity, which slowly increases the heart rate. Avoid high-impact exercises like kickboxing and CrossFit-style training, which are too strenuous on the joints for people with RA. Walking, swimming, riding a stationary bike, and yoga are better choices, according to the AF.

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Make Life at Home Easier

Choose among the wide variety of aids, called assistive devices, available to help make life easier with Rheumatoid Arthritis. “Use tools and kitchen utensils with built-up grips,” says Nathan Wei, MD, director of the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Maryland. “This places less pressure on the hands.” He also recommends appliances like electric can openers and under-the-cabinet jar openers to ease hand strain as well as lighter-weight cookware — no cast-iron skillets, for example — to avoid heavy lifting.

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Don’t Smoke

“Smoking is a significant environmental factor for Rheumatoid Arthritis,” Goodman says. “It increases the risk for Rheumatoid Arthritis and decreases your benefit from medication, leading to a worsened overall state and increased joint damage,” she says. “It will also increase the risk for cardiac disease, which is already increased in people with Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

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