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Self-help and daily living for arthritis

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There are many ways that you can help yourself if you have arthritis. 

Rest and exercise

It's important to keep your joints moving and your muscles strong – whether you have arthritis or not. Generally the stronger the muscles which support a joint, the less pain you'll have in that joint.

If a joint is very inflamed, a short period of rest may help the swelling to settle down. You should protect inflamed or damaged joints. It's better to use them little but often rather than persisting with activities that cause lasting pain. It's also important not to rest the joints too much.

Try to put your joints through a full range of motion at least once a day, to prevent them stiffening up. Your body is designed to move, and not doing so is harmful to the tissues in and around the joints. To increase the life of your joints, you should stay active. Keeping active is good for your cardiovascular system (heart and lungs), and for your general health and wellbeing.

Exercise can also improve your mood and self-esteem.

If you have a flare-up of your arthritis, which may occur as a result of overdoing it, applying ice to the painful joints may help to reduce the inflammation (but make sure the ice pack is wrapped in a damp towel to protect your skin). Packs to warm in the microwave are available and may help to ease aching joints.

Exercise doesn't need to involve equipment, and often the simplest exercises are the best. The key is to find something you enjoy, and to keep doing it.

Stretching exercises help ease aches and pains and get the best movement from your joints.

Strengthening exercises are important as we rely on our muscles to support our joints and keep them in the right position when we move. If muscles are weak, joints can become unstable and this can be painful.

Fitness exercises, which can be as simple as walking a bit further and faster than you normally would, are very important to keep your heart healthy. This type of exercise can also help to improve sleeping patterns.

You might like to join a sports team or a leisure centre so you can exercise with other people. Some people find doing exercise in a group gives them extra motivation, and it can be a good way to meet people with the same interests.

Swimming is an excellent all-round form of exercise for people with arthritis because the joints are supported in the water, which makes it easier to move them.

Cycling is good for strengthening your knees and for general fitness.You can use a static exercise bike at home or in a gym, or there are many traffic-free cycle paths if you want to go outside. If you get a lot of knee pain you may have to take it very gently when you start off with cycling, and stop if your pain gets worse when cycling.

In terms of amount of exercise, little and often is the right approach. You could build exercises into your daily routine. For example, every time you wash your hands, take a few minutes to do some exercises. It may sound silly, but it will help you remember.

physiotherapist can advise you on helpful exercises, which will vary depending on your type of arthritis.

Healthy eating

If you have arthritis, it's important to avoid being overweight, as this puts extra strain on the joints. If you're overweight, losing two stone (about 13 kg) can reduce the pain in the knee by 50 per cent and even a little weight loss can reduce pain.

A healthy, balanced, low-fat and nutritional diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables and fibre is good for your general health. Avoiding too much meat or animal fat is a good idea.

If you're on drugs for arthritis you may need to avoid alcohol or limit the amount you drink. If you're in doubt, check with your doctor.

Beware of books, articles and advice about diets that claim to cure arthritis. Many of them recommend quite different things, and most people do not benefit from them. An unusual diet can do more harm than good.

Managing stress

Chronic arthritis can get you down, and constant pain may lead to anxiety and depression. Counselling from your doctor, or from someone they recommend, may help.

You may find that sharing the problem with friends and others who are affected can also be helpful.

You may be able to learn useful relaxation techniques with the help of a physiotherapist or occupational therapist.

Support groups and telephone support lines allow you to talk to others with similar issues.

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies such as osteopathy and chiropractic can help some arthritic conditions, especially back pain.

There's a huge range of other therapies, including homoeopathy and herbalism, and a range of food supplements that you may be tempted to try.

Most of these are harmless, but if in doubt you should ask your doctor. If you do try these therapies or supplements, be critical of what they are doing for you, and base your decision to continue on whether you notice any improvement. You may find that changing only one thing at a time helps you to tell which therapies are working.

Arthritis Research UK has developed two authoritative reports into complementary medicines and therapies. These reports assess all the known evidence for these therapies and rate them for effectiveness and safety.

Moving to a warmer climate

Many people with arthritis feel that changes in the weather affect the level of pain they feel. Most people prefer hot, dry climates, but some people feel better in the cold and damp. The weather will probably make a difference to how you feel – warmth and sunshine tend to lift your spirits. However, arthritis and musculoskeletal pain occur in all climates, and although the weather may affect the symptoms of your arthritis or the way you feel, it won’t cause the condition or affect the way it develops.

For further information visit our section on arthritis and daily life.

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