Rheumatoid arthritis

7 Joint Pain Triggers That Can Make RA Worse

Avoiding these health mistakes can make rheumatoid arthritis treatment more effective and slow its progression.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic health condition in which your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks your joints and other tissues, causing pain, swelling, and fatigue. Early treatment is the best way to slow and even prevent joint damage caused by RA, according to the 2020 American College of Rheumatology (ACR) Guideline for the Management of Rheumatoid Arthritis. This will help you live a healthier life and preserve your mobility.

There are also lifestyle habits you can adjust to help support your RA treatment plan and reduce joint pain. It helps to be aware of these common joint pain triggers and take steps to prevent them.

1. Smoking


Not only is smoking linked to an increased risk for developing RA, but continuing to smoke if you do have RA can make joint pain worse. “Smoking makes it harder for RA treatment to be effective,” says Kevin Deane, MD, PhD, a rheumatologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. People with RA who continue to smoke have higher levels of certain chemical markers in their body that show ongoing disease activity and joint damage, even with treatment, according to research published in January 2014 in the journal Arthritis Research & Therapy. “Smoking has also been associated with higher pain scores, more active disease, and lower likelihood of achieving disease remission among people with RA,” says Ashima Makol, MBBS, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota.

If you need help quitting smoking, talk to your doctor.

2. Not Eating Enough Omega-3s

Not Eating Enough Omega-3s such as salmon and other cold-water fish

Foods rich in inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and other cold-water fish, may help fight pain related to RA. The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements notes that increased omega-3 intake could help manage RA and complement other treatments. According to a meta-analysis published in January 2018 in the journal Nutrition, consuming omega-3 fatty acids was found to improve RA, including reducing inflammation. You can get them by eating more fish, flaxseed, and foods fortified with omega-3s or taking supplements, as recommended by your physician.

3. Putting Off Treatment

Putting Off Treatment doctor visit care

Waiting to talk to your doctor about your RA symptoms can make it harder to get joint pain under control, which is why the Arthritis Foundation recommends early and aggressive treatment. “Catching RA early is the most important thing people can do to make sure joint pain doesn’t get worse,” Dr. Deane says.

“The majority of joint damage and cartilage destruction has been noted in people with RA during their first two years of disease, and this has a strong impact on long-term function, disability, and mortality,” Dr. Makol adds. “This is why the first six months to a year after disease onset is considered a precious window of opportunity during which doctors target disease remission as the goal, or trying to achieve minimal to no disease activity.”

Prompt treatment with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) or biologics can help slow the progression of RA and prevent joint damage, according to the ACR guidelines. Talk to your doctor, who can help create an RA treatment plan that’s right for you.

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