Mayo Clinic Health Library

Arthritis pain: Do's and don'ts

Updated: 08-13-2011

You get all kinds of advice about exercise, medication and stress reduction, but how do you know what will work best for you? Here are some do's and don'ts to help you figure it out.

Basics

Whatever your condition, you'll have an easier time staying ahead of your pain if you:

  • Talk to your doctor about all your symptoms, arthritis related or not. Sometimes seemingly unrelated problems are, in fact, connected.
  • Give your doctor complete information about all your medical conditions, not just arthritis.
  • Ask your doctor for a clear definition of the type of arthritis you have.
  • Find out whether any of your joints are already damaged.

Everyday routines

Do some gentle exercise in the evening; you'll feel less stiff in the morning. When you're technically doing nothing — watching TV or sitting at your desk, for instance — be sure to:

  • Adjust your position frequently.
  • Periodically tilt your neck from side to side, change the position of your hands, and bend and stretch your legs.
  • Pace yourself. Take breaks so that you don't overuse a joint and cause more pain.

Exercise

When you have arthritis, movement can decrease your pain, improve your range of motion, strengthen your muscles and increase your endurance.

What to do

  • Choose the right kinds of activities — those that build the muscles around your joints but don't damage the joints themselves.
  • Focus on stretching, range of motion exercises and gradual progressive strength training.
  • Include low-impact aerobic exercise, such as walking, cycling or water exercises, for improving your mood and helping control your weight.

What to avoid

  • Running
  • Jumping
  • Tennis
  • High-impact aerobics
  • Repeating the same movement, such as a tennis serve, again and again
  • Inactivity, which can lead to muscle atrophy and further decrease joint stability

Medications

Several medications are available for arthritis pain relief. Most are relatively safe, but no medication is completely free of side effects. Talk with your doctor to formulate a medication plan for your specific pain symptoms.

What to do

  • First, rest. Mild, occasional pain may need nothing more than rest and the application of cold or heat. Rest the painful joint, and apply cold packs to relieve pain or hot packs to ease stiff and achy joints and muscles.
  • For occasional pain. Take over-the-counter (OTC) acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or aspirin tablets as directed on the bottle to relieve occasional pain triggered by activity your muscles and joints aren't used to — such as gardening after a winter indoors.
  • For longer periods of pain. Take OTC ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) or naproxen (Aleve, others) for one or two days if pain related to unaccustomed activity persists. Follow the dosing directions on the package. Ibuprofen and naproxen are classified as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) because they reduce inflammation as well as pain. Aspirin also relieves pain, but it's typically used for purposes other than reducing inflammation.
  • When you anticipate pain. Try taking one dose of acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen a few hours before you start an activity that's likely to cause joint pain.
  • When pain persists. Consult your doctor if these medications aren't relieving your pain.

What to avoid

  • Overtreatment. Talk with your doctor if you find yourself using acetaminophen, aspirin or NSAIDs regularly.
  • Undertreatment. Don't try to ignore severe and prolonged arthritis pain. It may mean you have joint damage requiring daily medication.
  • Focusing only on pain. Depression is more common in people with arthritis. Doctors have found that treating depression with antidepressants and other therapies reduces not only depression symptoms, but also arthritis pain.

Physical and emotional integration

It's no surprise that arthritis pain has a negative effect on your mood. If everyday activities make you hurt, you're bound to feel discouraged. But when these normal feelings escalate to create a constant refrain of fearful, hopeless thoughts, your pain can actually get worse and harder to manage.

What to do
Therapies that interrupt destructive mind-body interactions include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. This well-studied, effective combination of talk therapy and behavior modification helps you identify — and break — cycles of self-defeating thoughts and actions.
  • Lifestyle changes. Being overweight can increase complications of arthritis and contribute to arthritis pain. Making incremental, permanent lifestyle changes resulting in gradual weight loss is often the most effective method of weight management. And if you smoke, find a way to quit. Smoking causes stress on connective tissues, which leads to more arthritis pain.
  • Journaling and other coping skills. The emotional release of journaling about your feelings, as well as using other coping skills, can result in decreased sensation of pain.
  • Acupuncture. Some people experience pain relief through acupuncture treatments, when a trained acupuncturist inserts hair-thin needles at specific points on your body.

What to avoid

  • Smoking. If you're addicted to tobacco, you may use it as an emotional coping tool. But it's highly counterproductive: the toxins in smoke cause stress on connective tissue, leading to more joint problems.
  • A negative attitude. Negative thoughts are self-perpetuating. As long as you keep dwelling on them, they keep escalating until you believe the worst. Using negative thoughts to cope with pain can actually increase your risk of disability and pain. Instead, focus on adaptive therapies like distraction or calming statements.

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