Fighting Back Against Rheumatoid Arthritis Fatigue
The word “arthritis” literally means pain and inflammation in the joints, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that people are living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) experience symptoms like joint pain and swelling. However, it turns out that RA is a lot more complicated than just a little joint pain.
RA is an autoimmune disease where a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy joints in the body. It’s also a systemic disease, meaning that it can also affect other tissues and organs in addition to the joints. And, as anyone personally living with RA can likely tell you, in addition to joint pain one of the most frustrating symptoms associated with the disease is debilitating chronic fatigue.
Fatigue is very different from normal tiredness and can have an enormous impact on individuals living with RA. Personally, I think fatigue can be overwhelming from both a physical and cognitive perspective.
When I am particularly fatigued, I feel physically drained and exhausted, and I tend to struggle significantly just to get through an ordinary day. Additionally, sometimes I’m so worn out that I can’t seem to concentrate or focus, making it a real cognitive challenge to complete everyday tasks. Chronic fatigue can feel a bit like you are constantly fighting the flu.
While chronic fatigue can be just as debilitating as joint pain, unfortunately, there is no quick fix. In fact, sometimes fatigue is a separate problem.
According to a study presented at the 2017 American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting, a considerable proportion of patients who are otherwise considered to be in clinical remission still report that they experience fatigue. So if you are facing RA fatigue, here are seven strategies to consider that might help you cope on a daily basis.
1. Discuss Fatigue With Your Doctor
If your fatigue is feeling out of hand, a great place to start is by discussing the problem with your doctor.
Tell your doctor how often you feel fatigued, how long it lasts, how it affects your daily life or your ability to concentrate, the quality of your sleep, and whether your fatigue is accompanied by feelings of depression or anxiety. If your doctor has an accurate idea of exactly what you are experiencing, he or she will be far better equipped to treat any underlying medical conditions and offer specific suggestions to improve your situation.
While fatigue and RA pain may sometimes be separate, chronic pain can undoubtedly contribute to fatigue. So it also makes sense to work with your doctor to make sure your RA inflammation is as under control as possible. Uncontrolled inflammation can have a direct impact on the brain receptors that cause fatigue, so medications that decrease inflammation may also help reduce fatigue.
2. Get Some Exercise
This strategy may seem a bit counterintuitive when you are struggling just to get through an ordinary day, but getting some exercise can help with fatigue in many ways.
For starters, exercise strengthens your muscles and increases your circulation and flexibility, all of which can reduce pain and boost your energy levels. Physical activity also generates endorphins, which are brain chemicals that produce a sense of well-being. And if poor sleep is contributing to your fatigue, getting a little exercise during the day may help improve your sleep at night.
But don’t worry – you don’t have to run a marathon or spend hours upon hours at the gym to reap the benefits of exercise when it comes to improving fatigue. Even taking a short walk, a yoga class, or just doing some slow stretching can help.
If you are having a lot of trouble finding a type of exercise that your body is comfortable with, it may help to start by working with a physical therapist.
3. Pace Yourself and Prioritize Tasks
While light exercise tends to be beneficial when it comes to fatigue, it’s also important not to over-exert yourself. Likewise, you also need to figure out how to pace yourself and prioritize tasks in your everyday life. When your energy is so limited, you need a plan to help you allocate it as wisely as possible.
Start by figuring out which activities are the most important each day, and allocate your energy to those first. This may mean letting less important tasks wait for another time, delegating some tasks to loved ones if they are willing, or hiring some help. Being selective about which tasks you personally complete will help you conserve energy for what matters most to you.
When it comes to completing the tasks you have allocated for yourself, it may help to alternate short periods of activity with short periods of rest. While it may be a bit frustrating to try to accomplish daily tasks in 15 or 20-minute bursts, it’s a lot better than working for an hour or two straight and completely draining yourself.
If you end up accidentally expending your limited energy too quickly, it may help to keep a diary to track your activity level and resulting symptoms for a couple of weeks. Having a written record may help you identify patterns you otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. And, if you’re still struggling, consider visiting an occupational therapist to help you develop a pacing strategy to fit your own unique needs.