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What You Can Do to Help Manage Your Rheumatoid Arthritis

What You Can Do to Help Manage Your Rheumatoid Arthritis

This article is for people who have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or their care partners, or anyone who wants to learn more about RA. The goal is for patients to be able to evaluate their condition and talk with their doctor about ways to manage their RA.

You will learn about:

  • What RA is

  • How RA is managed and the goals of treatment

  • How your doctor measures your RA and checks its progress

  • How to recognize changes in your RA symptoms and help manage your condition

  • Questions to ask your doctor

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What Is RA?

Rheumatoid arthritis -- or RA -- is a chronic (long-term) condition that happens in your joints, such as your hands, wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, or feet. RA also sometimes affects other parts of your body, such as skin, eyes, lungs, heart, blood, nerves, or kidneys.

RA is an autoimmune condition. This means it happens when there’s a problem with your body’s immune system and it mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.

RA causes inflammation that affects the same joints on both sides of your body, which can become swollen, stiff, and painful. In most people, joint symptoms happen slowly over time. But in others, RA may develop quickly.

Management and Treatment

There’s no cure for RA but it can be treated and managed. Without treatment, inflammation can damage your joints and tissues and may even become disabling. It’s important to talk to your doctor about your RA and treatment.

The main goals of RA treatment are to control inflammation and minimize joint damage.

Other goals are to:

  • Relieve pain

  • Prevent damage to organs

  • Maintain ability to function and do daily activities

  • Reduce long-term problems

You and your doctor will create a plan that includes which treatment is right for you and when to start or stop treatment.

How Your Doctor Measures RA

Visit your doctor regularly so they can do a physical exam and run tests to see how your RA is progressing and if treatment is working.

The exam may include:

  • Swollen and/or tender joint count. Your doctor uses the total number, along with other measures, to calculate your Disease Activity Score, or DAS. This score measures how active your RA is

  • Give you a questionnaire to rate your pain or check your physical function or emotional health. You’ll be asked about performing daily tasks -- such as bathing or dressing -- or if you’re feeling stressed or having trouble sleeping

Flares and Remission

With RA, you can have flares -- times when joint pain and swelling worsen -- mixed with times of remission where you have very few or no symptoms. Pain, stiffness, and fatigue happen with all RA flares. But what causes flares, how long they last, how often they happen, and how bad they are can change.

There are 2 types of flares:

  • Predictable flares caused by a trigger, such as stress or overworking your joints. You’ll feel worse at first, but symptoms get better over time

  • Unpredictable flares are more uncertain and don’t have a trigger you can identify. These flares might not get better on their own

Managing Your Flares

Knowing what your triggers are -- and avoiding them -- can help manage, and even prevent, flares.

Keep a record of your flares to discuss them with your doctor. Record if you had a trigger (and what it was), how long it lasted, how bad symptoms were, and how it affected your daily life. Were your flares bad enough to make you miss work, school, or social activities?

Recognizing Changes in Your RA

Regularly check your symptoms to recognize changes and help take charge of your RA. This way you can keep your RA under control and in remission.

Ask your doctor about what to look for. Record a detailed description of your symptoms. Learn how to rate your pain, daily functioning, and stress levels. Keeping track of these will also help manage your RA.

Be sure to record any changes -- increases and decreases in pain -- and when you have flares. When you tell your doctor about your symptoms, be specific and don't leave any out. Don't downplay your pain or swelling or any problems doing your daily activities. Be sure to describe how pain affects your life.

Tips to Help With Your RA

Ways to help manage your RA and daily functioning include:

  • Check your symptoms to recognize and record changes

  • Keep track of flares and avoid triggers  

  • Take medicines as directed

  • Protect your joints by changing the way you do tasks

  • Pace yourself

  • Maintain a healthy weight to decrease joint pain and strain

  • Stay active to keep your joints flexible and muscles strong. Ask your doctor about what exercises would be best for you

  • Develop coping strategies to relax and to reduce stress

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Questions you can ask your doctor about your RA can include:

  • How can RA affect my daily life?

  • What can I do to help manage my condition?

  • What RA symptoms should I look for and how can I recognize changes? 

  • How should I keep track of my symptoms and rate my pain and swelling, daily functioning, and stress levels?

  • What treatments are available and what are their side effects?

  • What lifestyle changes and types of exercise should I do?

  • What should I do if I start to feel stressed?

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View Additional Materials View additional materials on this topic that you may find useful.

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Authors and Disclosures

Clinician Reviewer

Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD

Senior Medical Education Strategic Director, Medscape, LLC

Disclosure: Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Senior Scientific Content Manager, Medscape, LLC

Disclosure: Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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