Arthritis: 4 Tips From a Doctor on Managing Symptoms at Home

With 1 in 4 American adults experiencing arthritis, many people are looking for ways to effectively manage the disease and their symptoms — including pain, stiffness, and swelling in or around joints such as those in the hands, wrists, elbows, feet, ankles, knees, and hips, which can significantly impact function and movement.

If you think you may have arthritis, the first and most important step to take is to speak with a doctor to receive a proper diagnosis. With more than 100 types of arthritis and related health conditions that can affect the joints and surrounding tissues, it is important to know which type you have so it can be treated properly. Some people may also have more than one type of arthritis or develop new symptoms that require re-evaluation and perhaps a different treatment plan.

Once you have a diagnosis, your doctor will develop a personalized arthritis treatment plan.  Focused on fighting inflammation, reducing joint pain and stiffness, and keeping you moving, arthritis treatment plans typically include the use of medications — prescription and/or over-the-counter — and non-drug treatments. In some cases, depending on your diagnosis, specialized medications are required for targeted treatments that require continuous monitoring by a doctor.

It is also common for doctors to recommend other ways you can help to manage the disease at home.

Common At-Home Arthritis Treatment Options

While there is no cure for arthritis, there are many ways to control your pain, minimize joint damage, and improve or maintain your mobility and quality of life. At-home treatments can provide significant pain relief to those diagnosed with the disease.

Tip #1: Lifestyle Changes

  • Nutrition: While there is no miracle diet for arthritis, eating certain foods may help reduce inflammation and improve your symptoms. I recommend that my patients stay away from foods that contain large amounts of salt, sugar, or high fructose corn syrup, as these ingredients can lead to arthritis flare-ups. Maintaining a healthy weight can also reduce stress and pressure on your joints.
  • Exercise: Eating healthy and exercising regularly work hand in hand when managing arthritis. Exercise is particularly important to increase your strength and flexibility and reduce joint pain. This does not mean that you need to run a marathon or start lifting heavy weights. In fact, the types of exercises that are best for you depend on your diagnosis. Your doctor or physical therapist can identify specific stretches, exercises, and movements you should include in your personal arthritis treatment plan.
  • Sleep: It’s not uncommon for people with arthritis to have trouble sleeping because of pain or stress caused by the disease. However, not getting enough sleep can actually make your arthritis pain worse. Be sure to speak with your doctor about any sleep issues. I also recommend that my patients who have trouble sleeping because of stress or anxiety try meditation and mindfulness exercises.
  • Mood: Long-term health conditions, like arthritis, may often lead to anxiety and depression. It is important to discuss your concerns openly with your healthcare professional.
  • Regular Wellness Exams: It is important to regularly check in with your primary care doctor or other healthcare professional. This is especially true for people with diabetes, thyroid disease, chronic liver disease, or kidney disease as these are health conditions that can impact a person’s arthritis.

Skipping a workout or having a cheat meal from time to time doesn’t mean you’ve failed, but trying to incorporate these lifestyle changes into your daily routine as much as possible can lead to better results.

Tip #2: Heat and Cold Therapy

Many doctors (including myself) recommend that patients diagnosed with arthritis use both heat and cold treatments at home to reduce inflammation and help with painful or stiff joints. Cold helps to numb the area and reduce inflammation and swelling, while heat can loosen up muscles and increase flexibility.

Common cold treatments for arthritis include applying an ice pack (frozen peas or ice cubes in a baggie also work) for 20 minutes at a time. For heat treatments, patients can soak in a warm bath or apply a heating pad for 20 minutes.

Tip #3: Over-the-Counter Medicines

When used as directed, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers are another safe and effective way to relieve mild to moderate arthritis pain. They aren’t meant to treat chronic pain conditions on a consistent or long-term basis unless used as directed by a healthcare professional. OTC pain relievers are generally recommended for only short periods of time, ranging from 10 to 21 days, unless instructed by a healthcare professional.

OTC pain relievers, taken orally in pill, capsule, or liquid form, include medicines containing acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium.

Patients diagnosed with arthritis should not overlook OTC topical pain relievers. They are applied to the skin over the arthritic joint and penetrate deep through the skin to deliver medicine at the site of arthritis pain. When choosing topical pain relievers, be sure to look for topical NSAIDs such as diclofenac sodium, which can treat joint pain, rather than counter-irritants such as menthol, which target neuropathic pain. Topical NSAIDs are effective for arthritis pain in areas such as knees, feet, ankles, elbows, wrists, and hands.

It is important to be aware that each OTC medicine has potential side effects and interactions with other drugs. Always read and follow the Drug Facts label on the medicine’s bottle or packaging to determine whether you have any risk factors related to the medicine’s active ingredients. Contact your doctor, pharmacist, or other healthcare professional with any questions before using an OTC pain reliever for your arthritis pain.

The KnowYourOTCs Pain Reliever Assessment can help you identify personal risk factors that you can discuss with your doctor to find oral OTC pain relievers that may be right for you.

Tip #4: Complementary Options

There are many complementary options available that claim to alleviate arthritis pain. While these remedies have little or no clinical evidence to support their use, many people use them to manage their pain. Always use high-quality products from companies that are transparent about their research data and how their product is made.

Some people should not take certain treatments because of their personal health conditions or current medications. That’s why it is important to speak with a doctor or a pharmacist before use.

Some examples of complementary options include:

  • Essential oil: A topical treatment for joint pain made from various components of plants, including their roots, stems, leaves, flowers, or fruits.
  • Turmeric (Curcuma longa): A spice that is frequently used in South Asian foods.
  • Glucosamine sulfate: A supplement form of glucosamine––a natural compound found in cartilage.

No matter what treatment options make up your personalized arthritis treatment plan, it is important to stick with it. However, finding out what works best for you can take some trial and error, so be sure to speak with your doctor if you are struggling to manage your arthritis or notice any new symptoms.

Disclosure: Dr. Sulich is compensated by Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. to consult on pain management issues.

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Andrew Sulich, M.D.

Andrew Sulich, M.D., is a board-certified rheumatologist with a private practice in Michigan. He has 31 years of experience treating patients and conducting research and advocacy.