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Non-surgical Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Most patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can be treated non-surgically. A treatment plan is designed to control the disease, alleviate pain, maintain function (activities of daily living), and maximize quality of life.

For tips on lifstyle changes to help you manage rheumatoid arthritis, visit our Patients' Guide to Healthy Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

In this RA Treatment Series

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, although there are medications that can relieve symptoms and slow disease progression. The medication recommended by the doctor is based on your medical condition, age, other drugs you currently take, safety, cost, and your preference. In other words, not everyone with RA will be on the same medications and doses.

Medications

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can relieve pain and inflammation. NSAIDs should be taken with food to prevent stomach upset and stomach bleeding.
  • COX-2 inhibitors are a new class of NSAIDs used to alleviate pain and inflammation. These work with much less risk of stomach upset and stomach bleeding.
  • Corticosteroid drugs reduce inflammation and can slow joint damage. Initially, you'll feel much better as the drug combats inflammation. However, over time the drug becomes less effective because your body adjusts to the anti-inflammatory effect. Side effects can include bone thinning, bruising, weight gain, and high blood pressure.
  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) act slowly to "modify" the disease. It can take several months before any benefit is noticed. These drugs may slow disease progression and save joint tissue from damage. DMARDs are usually combined with an NSAID. The NSAID treats the symptoms while the DMARD works on modifying the disease.
  • Immunosuppressants can be used in some patients to quiet the immune system. IN RA, the immune system is malfunctioning, so immunosuppressants can help deal with that.
  • Anti-depressant drugs can help some patients to cope with their chronic disease in a couple of ways.  As surprising as it may seem, anti-depressants can be effective drugs for treating pain because they block pain messages on their way to the brain. 

    They can also help increase your body's production of endorphins, a natural pain killer. Anti-depressants can also help you sleep better, which can be a major concern for people in chronic pain.  Finally, chronic pain from RA can take a toll on your mental health, so an anti-depressant can help.

To learn more, read our article on drugs and medications for rheumatoid arthritis.

Other Non-surgical Treatments
Physical therapy (PT) for rheumatoid arthritis can help restore muscle strength, flexibility, improve mobility, coordination, and maintain body functions through exercise. Massage, hydrotherapy, and other modalities can help relieve pain.

It's very important to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This includes eating a good diet, exercising to help relieve your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms (when your body allows it), and resting. You may also want to consider alternative treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, such as acupuncture or relaxation therapy. Reducing your stress to reduce your rheumatoid arthritis pain is also an important, and many times undervalued, treatment option.

It's not that a healthy lifestyle will cure rheumatoid arthritis; rather, a healthy lifestyle will help you get through each day better and help you better deal with the effects of RA.

It is helpful to keep a medical diary noting medications that work, drug side effects, severity of symptoms, flare-ups, and remissions.

Updated on: 06/20/11
Lawrence G. Lenke, MD
This article was reviewed by Lawrence G. Lenke, MD.
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Alternative Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Many people with rheumatoid arthritis find pain relief from complementary and alternative medicines (CAM). Acupuncture, herbal remedies, massage, relaxation therapy, and mind-body exercises like yoga and Pilates are popular options.
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