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Essential Self-Care for Arthritis

If you have arthritis, taking your medication and following your doctor's recommendations are essential. But self-care can be just as important in your daily and long-term management of the disease.

Other important parts of treatment include exercise, rest and relaxation, a healthy diet, and instruction on how to use your joints and conserve energy (no wasted motion).

The following medical and self-care steps can make living with arthritis easier and less painful.

Medical essentials

  • Visit your doctor and get an accurate diagnosis. The earlier an accurate diagnosis is made and proper treatment started, the better. Since there are many types of arthritis, a proper diagnosis is essential to starting the right treatment.

  • If you have a type of arthritis other than osteoarthritis, see an ophthalmologist for a complete eye exam or discuss the need for an eye exam with your physician. Many of the inflammatory types of arthritis are associated with eye disease.

  • Update your medications. If you've been taking the same arthritis medications for years, ask your doctor if any of the newer drugs have fewer side effects or provide greater pain relief than your current regimen.

  • Take your medication as prescribed. If you're tempted to stop taking your medication because you believe it's not working or causing side effects, call your doctor first. Some medications should not be abruptly stopped. Some medications take a while to work, or for the side effects to stop.

There are many types of arthritis. Experienced health care providers, physical therapists, and occupational therapists can recommend exercises that are particularly helpful for a specific type of arthritis.

Movement musts

Three types of exercise are best for people with arthritis, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases:

  • Range of motion. This type of exercise helps you maintain normal joint movement, relieve stress, and increase flexibility.

  • Strengthening. This type of exercise helps you maintain or increase your muscle strength. Strong muscles support and protect your joints.

  • Aerobic or endurance. This type of exercise improves your cardiovascular fitness, helps control weight, and improves overall function. It may also help reduce inflammation in some joints.

Following are some ideas for exercising with arthritis:

  • Stay on the move. Regular exercise helps relieve and prevent arthritis pain. An effective program can help stabilize a weak or damaged joint and promote flexibility, which can reduce pain and stiffness. Be sure to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

  • Warm up before working out. Start slowly and get up to speed only after your muscles and joints have had at least five minutes of prep time.

  • Stretch it out. Warm up first by walking or taking a hot shower, then stretch. Stretching helps keep your joints and muscles flexible, relieves stress, and can help you maintain your daily activities.

  • Take the plunge. Exercising in water can build your strength and increase your range of motion. The water's buoyancy reduces the wear and tear on your sore joints. Check your local YMCA or call the Arthritis Foundation for an aquatic exercise program in your area.

  • Avoid excess stress on your joints. Use larger or stronger joints to carry things. Shop for devices that can make tasks at home and work easier.

  • Increase your range. Range-of-motion exercises (such as stretching) can help keep your muscles and ligaments flexible and strong.

  • Take a walk. Choose your favorite spots (indoors and out) and plan to walk around them at least once a week. Walking is the ideal exercise for most people with arthritis. It burns calories, strengthens muscles, and builds denser bones, all without jarring fragile joints.

  • Monitor how you feel after exercise. If your joints hurt two hours after a workout, you're doing too much and need to reduce the length or intensity of your workout.

Dietary directives

  • Lose weight by eating fewer calories and exercising more. You won't just look better, you'll feel better, too. Research shows losing as few as 11 pounds may reduce your risk for osteoarthritis of the knee by 50 percent.

  • Ask your doctor for advice about your diet and any connections between your food and the type of arthritis you have.

Preempt pain

  • Apply heat. To relieve your pain and stiffness, try warm towels, hot packs, or a warm bath or shower. Use heat therapy 15 to 20 minutes three times a day. Your health care professional may offer shortwave, microwave, and ultrasound to get heat to joint areas.

  • Apply cold. Applying cold to your sore spots can help reduce pain and swelling. Use a cold pack, a bag of ice wrapped in a towel, or a bag of frozen vegetables for a quick and easy cold treatment 10 to 15 minutes at a time. You also can try an "ice massage" and rub ice directly on a painful joint.

  • Enjoy a massage. Massage can help relieve your muscle tension and reduce fatigue. Certain forms, such as Swedish massage, focus on muscles and joints to improve function. Traction and manipulation also can help ease pain.

  • Learn to relax. Relaxation therapy can also help reduce pain. You can learn these techniques from a physical therapist, the Arthritis Foundation, or a health club.

  • Acupuncture. Look for someone who is medically qualified to do acupuncture. Researchers believe that the acupuncture needles stimulate nerves that tell the brain to release natural painkillers called endorphins, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Finally, learn everything you can about your condition so you can better manage it. Staying current with research, new medications, advances in surgery, and arthritis devices can help reduce your pain and maintain your activity level.