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How to Help a Loved One Deal With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Heather writes to help readers maintain a healthy lifestyle by addressing both external and internal stressors.

Those with RA treasure a helping hand.

Those with RA treasure a helping hand.

Life With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis has an impact not only the patient, but also those close to them. For me, that meant my husband and my children first, but eventually, others were affected, too: The rest of my family, then friends and members my church family. In the end, a lot of people were either directly or indirectly involved in my RA journey.

As I've navigated through my first year with this disease, it's become much clearer that I can't do it alone—and I don't want to. Those who have walked through this time with me have provided not only practical help, but comfort and reassurance, all of which I appreciate more than I can ever say.

Watching those around me this past year, I’ve seen just how hard it is to help a loved one cope with rheumatoid arthritis. While I've struggled with pain and learning how to manage symptoms, my husband has suffered in his own way. He has ridden out a lot of physical and emotional waves right alongside me, and that can take a toll on even the strongest person.

This video is another person's take on what it's like to live with RA.

A Personal Story of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Tips for Caregivers of Someone With Rheumatoid Arthritis

If you find yourself in the position of caring for someone with RA, it's important for you to be as equipped as possible to handle it. That way, you can help them while taking care of yourself, too.

Here are some basic ideas to get you started:

  1. Understand How Having RA Affects Your Loved One
  2. Learn Methods to Ease Your Loved One's Discomfort
  3. Remember to Take Care of Yourself

#1: Understand How Having RA Affects Your Loved One

RA is a "personal" disease in that it affects everyone just a little differently. Still, there are some general trademarks it can help to be aware of.

Physical Effects

As with any disease, having rheumatoid arthritis causes many changes in someone’s life. In some cases, the physical differences come on gradually In others, it seems like a person comes under attack without much warning.

For me, the physical aspects were clear and sudden - swelled joints, nerve pain, limited range of movement and fatigue all setting in quickly. It felt like my body was breaking down, with days and nights of rather intense pain. And my family was just as jarred by my downturn as I was.

Emotional Effects

Living with any chronic physical issue is challenging - and long-term pain often wears down not only the body, but the spirit. Feelings like anger and despair can set in on occasion. In fact, many RA patients even battle depression.

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I wish I could have handled everything more gracefully. But I actually went through the stages of grief in the months before and right after I was officially diagnosed. With each new limitation or adjustment I faced, sadness, annoyance and self-pity showed up. Each day was a test of sorts.

As the “helpmate”, this may seem overwhelming. You may think there’s nothing that you can offer - but don't worry. You don't have to be an expert in RA or in psychology to be a tremendous help. Often just being there as a sounding board and a quiet calm presence is a blessing.

#2 Learn Methods to Ease Your Loved One's Discomfort

Whether it's daily joint stiffness or an acute flare-up, pain is a regular part of life for someone with rheumatoid arthritis. Fortunately, there are many ways to provide short and long-term relief. As each person experiences RA differently, everyone has their own preference as to what helps them feel better. When you take the time to get to know your loved one’s needs and what eases their discomfort, you're giving them meaningful support and encouragement.

Here’s a personal example. In my early days, limited arm movement made it difficult to get a heating pad in place, and plugging it in hurt my finger joints. I felt so blessed when my husband or kids helped set me up. What can seem like a little thing to you can mean so much to someone who's hurting.

Some Common Ways to Reduce Inflammation and Relax

  1. Heating pads are good to use when there's a small area of tension, like shoulders or neck. They can be great for warming the bed up at night or in the morning—just be sure the one you have shuts off automatically.
  2. Ice packs can be just the thing for swollen joints like wrists or toes. Keep 3–4 in the freezer chilled and ready! Be careful not to place it directly on the skin, but wrap it in a thin towel before applying.
  3. TENS units have been growing in popularity. They are small packs that provide electrical pulses to specific areas of the body and can bring temporary relief for nerve pain. Home versions are inexpensive and easy to find in the drugstore nowadays. However, before using one, check in with your doctor about it.
  4. Gentle massage can be very effective in releasing tight muscles and increasing blood flow. The hands, shoulders, neck and feet respond especially well. If you do it yourself, just be sensitive to any areas where the arthritis is "settled," and keep your touch on the lighter side.
  5. Hot beverages and hot soups are wonderfully comforting in a couple of ways, but preparing them can be hard on arthritic hands. Holding a steaming cup of tea or coffee warms up the hands and eases stiffness while feeling good going down too!
  6. Hot showers are great for easing soreness and stiffness, and the experience is even better when someone helps get the faucets turned on and off! The same is true for taking a hot bath or soak with Epsom Salts. If you're comfortable with it, helping someone in and out the tub might make all the difference.

Quick Survey!

#3 Remember to Take Care of Yourself

As you take care of your loved one with RA, you give out in many ways. You’ll need ideas for your own wellbeing, too. Remember, it's not selfish for you to take care of yourself!

Think about these questions:

What activities do I really enjoy?

Have you been enjoying a favorite hobby or taking a class to learn about a new subject? Don't forget to keep including those in your routine. And, you might even be able to share some of them with your loved one.

How do I like to relax?

Carrying stress around inside is unhealthy. So think of both quicker and longer-lasting activities to help you slow down a bit, be it reading, meditating, or even exercise.

Who do I have to talk to when I need it?

Helping a loved one cope with disease means walking through some tough times with them. Finding a trusted friend or even joining a support group will give you your own place to share your journey with others who understand.

Are there others who can help my loved one too?

Needing a break sometimes is not only natural, but vital. And if you know there are other people who can step up, even once in awhile, you’ll feel more freedom to step back when you need to.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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