Learn the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Find tips for making arthritis more manageable.
The two most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Osteoarthritis results from the breakdown of cartilage. Cartilage is stiff yet flexible tissue found in the joint at the ends of bones. Cartilage cushions the joint so it can move more easily. In osteoarthritis, damage to cartilage impairs its function and leads to joint pain and stiffness.
RA is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and deformity of the joints. Other problems may also develop throughout the body. These may include:
- Inflammation of blood vessels (vasculitis)
- Development of bumps (called rheumatoid nodules), usually just under the skin
- Lung disease
- Blood disorders
- Weakening of the bones (osteoporosis)
Using heat and cold for arthritis pain
For short-term pain relief, try applying heat or cold to the aching joint. The decision to use either heat or cold for arthritis pain depends on what’s causing your pain and how well you respond to each method. Discuss this with your doctor or physical therapist before deciding if it’s right for you.
Applying heat relaxes muscles and helps relieve aches due in part to muscle tension. It also stimulates blood circulation, which helps irritated tissues heal. In contrast, applying something cold to a joint will numb the area and reduce pain.
To apply heat, soak in a warm bath, Jacuzzi or whirlpool, or take a warm shower. You may also use a heating pad, a hot water bottle or hot pack wrapped in a towel. To avoid being burned, don’t let the heat source get too hot. Also, leave it on for 15 minutes or less and keep the towel between the heat source and your skin.
To apply cold, use a cold pack or wrap a towel around a bag of frozen vegetables, then place it on the painful joint. Leave it on for 15 minutes or less, and be sure to protect your skin.
Do not apply heat or cold if you have poor circulation, diabetes, or nerve disease.
Reducing pain by reducing fatigue
Being overtired can make it harder for you to cope with arthritis pain and can even increase your pain. Make sure you get enough sleep. A nap during the day may help, too. Consider which tasks you really need to do today, and see if your family, friends or co-workers can help you.
Exercise regularly and appropriately, and follow an evening routine that helps you relax and feel ready for sleep. This will help you increase your energy levels and sleep better. During the day, pace yourself by balancing periods of activity with periods of rest.
Preventing pain by protecting your joints
Joint protection strategies can help you minimize or avoid pain caused by overusing a joint. When a joint is more painful than usual, take that as a sign that you have overdone it. Look for another way to get a task done or ask for help. Stand or sit up straight to keep your joints in optimal positions. Don’t stay in one position too long before getting up and gently stretching to avoid stiffness.
Use your stronger and larger joints for weight-bearing tasks. Cut back on prolonged activities that you know are going to put too much stress on your joints, or take more frequent rests during activity.
Muscle fatigue contributes to pain and discomfort, leaving you less able to cope. Exercise as your doctor or physical therapist tells you so you can keep your muscles strong. Range of motion exercises may help keep your joints mobile and strengthen the muscles around a joint. This may help prevent pain. Speak with your doctor or physical therapist to see if these exercises may benefit you.