Living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is no walk in the park. Not only is there joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and inflammation to deal with, but there can also be additional experiences of poor appetite, high temperature, weight loss, and fatigue.
However, that doesn’t mean you need to spend your life being at the mercy of these symptoms. In fact, making positive lifestyle changes can help you ease some of them, starting with fatigue.
If you’ve ever experienced tiredness so deep that it feels like you’re completely out of energy, like you’re totally worn out even if you haven’t done very much – you’re not alone.
Fatigue is one of the most common rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. In fact, between 40-90% of people living with RA experience chronic fatigue. But it can be managed. And while it takes practice, being patient with yourself and giving yourself the self-love to steadily beat fatigue is essential.
Why does RA cause fatigue?
We’ve all felt tired before, but fatigue is more than just feeling tired – it’s as though your body has been zapped of all energy. Not only can it leave you feeling mentally and physically exhausted, but it can affect your quality of life too.
So, what causes RA fatigue?
The inflammation that’s caused by your immune system attacking healthy cells in your body can also affect your central nervous system, and these high levels of inflammation can cause severe fatigue.
Long-term pain can wear the body out, and the joint pain you experience can disrupt your sleep, leading you to wake up feeling like you haven’t had enough rest.
While it’s natural to worry or feel overwhelmed if you’re living with RA, it’s difficult for your body to relax when your mind is spinning with anxiety. The muscle tension that comes with anxiety can contribute to your feelings of fatigue.
Major depressive disorder is said to affect 13-42% of people with rheumatoid arthritis. Not only can depression exhaust your brain cells, but a possible side effect of prescribed anti-depressants is fatigue.
If you are experiencing feelings of low mood that don’t seem to lift, we encourage you to reach out and talk to your doctor.
How can you fight RA fatigue?
The physical and mental effects of RA fatigue can really take their toll but there are things you can do that can offer some relief.
How to build the best rheumatoid arthritis self-care plan
There’s no one-size fits all approach to rheumatoid arthritis treatment. Everyone’s experience is unique, so each person with the condition must identify the path that best suits their individual needs.
One thing all people living with rheumatoid arthritis can do is learn the techniques that best support their ongoing self-management plan and emotional well-being. These self-care tips will help you to navigate the highs and lows.
Know your stressors
Learning how to identify your stressors will help you in the long run. It will enable you to know when a stressful situation might occur so that you can either avoid it or respond to it in a healthy way.
To do this, listening to your body is key. What makes you feel angry, worried, nervous, or tense? If a certain person, place, or situation causes your heart rate to go up, gives you that tell-tale sick feeling in your stomach, makes you break out in a sweat, or sets your mind racing, it’s likely that that is one of your stressors.
Acknowledging your stress gives you the chance to reset your mind and learn from the experience. Once you’ve faced it, you can then practice asking for help.
Ask for help
There’s no shame in asking for help. If you feel swamped by daily errands, call on friends and family for a helping hand.
If you’re feeling low or stressed, talking to someone can help you get your feelings out in the open. Knowing that you have a support system, or even a friendly shoulder to cry on, can bring the relief you didn’t know you needed.
Emily was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 13, and now aged 24, has found that surrounding herself with loved ones is key.
Having a good support system helps so much. For me, having family and friends who let you chat or rant about things without questioning and just lending a listening ear is so important.
Learn to prioritize
If you feel overwhelmed by your daily tasks and commitments, learn how to work on establishing your boundaries, practise saying no, and ask for help when you need it.
Making a list at the start of every day will help you visualize what your day holds, instead of trying to juggle it all in your mind.
Keeping your stress levels low is key, so don’t try to pack too much into one day. Take it easy and deal with one thing at a time. And if you start to feel tired, take a rest. Doing this will help you understand your limits.
Just the thought of working out might make you feel exhausted but moving your joints and staying strong are important when managing fatigue. Taking short 15-minute walks will help you feel refreshed and may even ease some pain and stiffness.
Ruth was diagnosed with RA when she was 16. Taking it slow and staying positive are her ways of living with the condition.
I find staying as active as possible is really important for my overall wellbeing. I try to do as many steps as I can in short bursts throughout the day, resting in between. I try to remain as positive as possible and focus on what I can do rather than the things I’m unable to.
Swimming is also an excellent exercise option because it’s low impact, the buoyancy of the water means there’s less pressure on your joints, and the feeling of the water lapping your body can be therapeutic.
Plus, exercise can ease feelings of low mood and increase your energy levels. Try exercising in the morning so that you have the boost you need to continue your day.
Moderate your diet
Making the right food choices might relieve your fatigue by giving you more energy. Focus on eating nutrient-rich foods and avoid overeating refined carbohydrates, fried foods, sugary drinks, and red or processed meat because these can all cause inflammation.
Instead, fatty fish such as tuna, salmon, and sardines make for great meal choices because of their richness in omega-3 acids which help control inflammation. Other foods that reduce inflammation are leafy greens like spinach and kale, and fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries and oranges.
Studies also show that following a Mediterranean diet can be beneficial for people living with RA due to its inclusion of nutrient-dense foods.
Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, peas and beans, nuts, and olive oil are all commonly found in a Mediterranean diet and offer a myriad of delicious meal options, as well as a decrease in inflammation.
Get a good night’s sleep
Joint pain can seriously affect sleep which will only add to your fatigue. To try and get the best night’s rest, try these tips:
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol because both can increase anxiety and disrupt sleep.
- Eating too late can go against your body’s circadian rhythm, so it’s best to stop eating about three hours before you hit the hay.
- Elevate your legs by sliding a pillow under your knees to alleviate joint pressure while you sleep.
- Meditation can help you relax and quieten your mind before you put your head down. You can find out more about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness here.
- Your body needs as much support as possible so investing in a comfortable mattress is important for a night of peaceful slumber.
Look after your mind
It’s totally normal to feel worn down by the pain and fatigue that comes with rheumatoid arthritis. Consider talking to your doctor about introducing pain management methods, such as medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, physical therapy, or meditation, to your treatment plan.
Mindfulness can help you handle your pain, as well as decrease anxiety and depression, and improve your overall well-being.
Find your happiness
Sometimes, it’s the small things that bring us the most happiness. Try to focus on what brings you pleasure on a daily basis.
Emily has found that staying positive helps her deal with RA.
Whenever I’m really struggling with my mental health, I always do things that make me happy or take my mind off my condition, like skincare, watching my favorite movie, eating my favorite food, etc. These things help to bring a bit more joy into my life.
Happiness looks different for everyone so don’t underestimate the tiny things that put a smile on your face.
Journaling is a good way of getting your thoughts on paper. Measuring fatigue is difficult so you could try writing how you’re feeling each day and then see if you can spot any patterns of fatigue or specific triggers.
If you’d like to discover more about how to live well when living with rheumatoid arthritis then explore our other articles. We’ve got tips on how to manage RA on the go as well as inspiring interviews with real people with RA.