If you’re one of the lucky ones, you probably don’t think too much about how you use your hands every day—washing dishes, opening jars, and getting dressed are all second nature. But if you’re dealing with rheumatoid arthritis, you know what a luxury it is to get your digits to cooperate without stiffness and pain. Although medications and a regular visit to the rheumatologist should make your symptoms much better (or, wait for it, obsolete!), some mornings are bound to be tougher than others. On those days, you need these pro tips to find relief.
Check in With Your Doc
RA ain’t what it used to be, baby! Treatments have dramatically improved over the last two decades—if you’re newly or recently-diagnosed, you should be able to live essentially symptom-free. So if you’re struggling, you might need to switch meds. “Our goal in 2020 with rheumatoid arthritis is that you should never know someone has it because they’re doing so well,” says Jonathan Samuels, M.D., a rheumatologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
Explore Your Options
With so many new drug therapies available, there’s no reason to not try something new if the one you’re on isn’t working. “Not everybody responds to every medication,” says Steven Vlad, M.D., Ph.D., a rheumatologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, MA. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about which medications work best for what people, and sometimes we just have to try medications by trial and error.” Worst case: You’re back where you started. Best case? A simple switch in meds gives you your life back.
Stretch It Out
Some people, especially those who have had RA for many years and didn’t get the right treatment early on, may experience stiffness even with medication, says Dr. Samuels. “There may be some erosion or chronic damage of those joints,” he says. “The worst part of the day usually is the morning,” especially after an extended period of sitting or lying down. If that’s you, doing simple hand and finger stretches whenever you feel the most stiffness can help loosen up your joints and improve your range of motion.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) creams can be purchased with or without a prescription, and can help with immediate pain relief for arthritis. “You can always apply topical NSAIDs or Voltaren gel to give you some relief,” Dr. Samuels says. However, they aren’t for everyone—if you're already taking oral NSAIDs, have sensitive skin, or have several affected joints, you might be better off with a different approach to pain relief, advises the Arthritis Foundation. As always, talk with your doctor before trying these creams.
Take a Hot Bath
You know that amazing feeling of slipping under a stream of hot water and feeling all your muscles relax? It can do the same thing for your stiff hands. The warmth opens up your blood vessels and promotes better circulation to the inflamed area, says Dr. Vlad. It’s not a long-term solution for rheumatoid arthritis stiffness, but if it feels great in the moment, why wouldn’t you? If nothing else, it will get your mind off your aches and help you refresh your day.
Run Hands Under Hot (or Cold) Water
If you don’t have time for a full-fledged bath, try running your hands under hot water or using a heating pad, both of which have the same effect on your blood flow and circulation. You can purchase a heating pad online (or at your local pharmacy), or you can make your own by soaking a washcloth or towel in hot water. Or, go to the opposite extreme: Soaking your hands in a bowl of cold water filled with ice cubes can reduce inflammation and the pain it causes.
Pop an OTC NSAID
These pain-relieving meds are easily available at any drugstore: You know them as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, as well as several others. While they shouldn’t take the place of your prescription medication (and likely won’t work quite as well), they can help in a pinch. “They’re not a good long-term solution, but for mild stiffness that’s a little bit bothersome, they can be effective,” Dr. Vlad explains. Stick to the lowest dose and take it with food, and talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about an allergic reaction or unpleasant side effects.
Just Move It
When your hands are stiff, moving them is probably the last thing you feel like doing. But believe it or not, it can help. “Using your joints makes them feel better with rheumatoid arthritis,” Dr. Vlad says. “Staying active helps with symptoms.” This explains why you’re sometimes stiff in the morning, after lying still for hours. Start with small movements—wrist circles while you’re in bed—then try extending and bunching up your fingers (stress balls are great tools for this). By mid-morning, you’ll likely be feeling much better.
Get a Massage
Massage isn’t just relaxing, it’s the key to a happier, calmer life. Research proves it: Scientists at the University of Miami School of Medicine found massage promotes the release of feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin in your body, while lowering the stress hormone cortisol. The best part? You don’t even need a professional to get a great at-home rub. Ask your partner or kids to gently knead your hands to help stimulate blood flow. Bonding time plus pain relief? Sounds like a win-win.
Take a Deep Breath
If you can’t physically relieve your symptoms, the next best thing is to learn to breathe through them. The Arthritis Foundation recommends meditation and deep breathing as ways to focus your energy away from the pain. Keep your mind on things that bring you true joy and distract yourself with a favorite audiobook or TV show—whatever you need to reframe your attitude for the day. All things pass—even RA pain—and with the help of your doctor, you’ll be feeling like yourself again before you know it.