Self-help for rheumatoid arthritis

Lesley Dobson / 10 June 2015

We take a look at the efficacy of self-help measures such as diet and exercise, and explode a few medical myths.

Diet and arthritis

Keeping to a healthy body weight is important for all of us, but it is especially important for anyone with rheumatoid arthritis. Carrying too much weight puts extra strain on your back, hips, knees and feet. You also need to watch out for being underweight. Your body needs the right nutrients and fuel to help you combat this condition.

Try to eat a balanced diet, with smaller amounts of fat and sugar, and plenty of fruit and vegetables, and foods high in calcium and iron. 

And don’t forget oily fish, a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, unsaturated fats and calcium. In the booklet, Healthy eating and arthritis, Oily fish, such as herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, trout and fresh tuna, are the best source of omega-3 fats. (Omega-6 fats may help to control inflammation, but too much may have the opposite effect, and most of us already have enough from our normal diets). 

Calcium is also important for people with rheumatoid arthritis, as this condition can put you at increased risk of osteoporosis. (See Arthritis Care’s booklet, Healthy eating and arthritis for more information.)

We don’t all respond in the same way to foods. Some foods that have no obvious effect on someone else, such as wheat and dairy products, could make your symptoms worse. Talk to your medical team about possible trigger foods. Try keeping a food diary for a few weeks, it may help you identify the food culprits.

Too much alcohol isn’t good for your health. However, scientists from Sweden and Denmark have discovered that drinking a moderate amount can reduce the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. In studies on over 2,750 people, scientists found that those who drank the most – over 5 alcoholic drinks a week – were up to 50 percent less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis.

Exercise and arthritis

Exercise is important for your health in all sorts of ways – but if you have rheumatoid arthritis, you need to be careful about what you do – and how much you do. Rest is important for swollen painful joints, it helps to ease the pain and make you more comfortable, but if you don’t move your joints, they’ll stiffen up, and your muscles will deteriorate. 

The answer is to find the right balance of rest and exercise for you. It’s something you’ll discover through trial and error, but here are a few guidelines that should help.

  • Don't do too much when you're having a good day, you'll probably pay for it later.
  • Don't choose contact or really energetic sports, like squash.
  • Walking and cycling are good, as you can exercise without putting undue pressure on your joints. Swimming is also a good choice, as the movement helps strengthen your muscles, while the water helps support your body and reduces pressure on your joints.
  • Ask your physiotherapist to show you some strengthening exercises. These will help build up your muscles, which then help support your joints.

Take a look at the booklet Looking after your joints when you have arthritis, on the Arthritis Research Campaign website. It has practical information on how to protect your joints while going about your daily life.

Smoking and arthritis

New research from New York Medical Centre, suggests that giving up smoking may help people with arthritis by reducing their symptoms. More research needs to be done, but it’s another good reason to give up cigarettes.

Alternative therapies for arthritis

While there are all kinds of alternative therapies available, there isn’t always evidence to show that they are effective at helping people with rheumatoid arthritis. 'It’s really a question of thinking carefully about the risks and benefits and making your own decisions on whether to use them based on this information,' says Abigail Page. 'If you are thinking of trying alternative therapies do talk to your health professional about it first,' she says.

'Hydrotherapy can be effective at relieving the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis,' says Abigail. 'Talk to your local branch of Arthritis Care, your doctor or clinical nurse specialist, to find out where it’s available in your area. There is also some evidence to show that acupuncture can relieve some of the pain symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis.'

Arthritis myth or fact?

The diet myth

'Some people find eliminating certain foods from their diets very helpful,' says Jane Tadman. 'Some also believe that you should avoid tomatoes and citrus fruits, in fact they swear by this.' 

So does diet matter? It all depends on you. There’s no evidence that tomatoes or citrus fruits make your symptoms worse, but that doesn’t mean that excluding these or other foods doesn’t help some people. The only foods for which we have evidence that they’re of some use, are fish oils (see Self Help).

The weather myth

People with rheumatoid arthritis often report that the weather does affect how they feel. They come home from a hot, sunny holiday, to cold, damp England, saying how much better they were when they were away.

'The damp seems to be the worst thing,' says Jane Tadman. 'It seems to get into your bones.' Again, there’s no evidence for or against this theory. It could be fact, it could be psychological – who doesn’t feel better after a holiday away from it all?

The age myth

Only old people get rheumatoid arthritis. This is definitely a myth. The most common age of onset for this condition is between the ages of 30 and 50. And around 15,000 children and teenagers under the age of 17, have a juvenile version of inflammatory arthritis.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.