Seven tips for living with arthritis

Stiff, painful joints can be a waking nightmare for millions of people living with arthritis. Lisa Salmon finds out what charity Versus Arthritis suggests

Stiff joints in the mornings can be a big problem for people with arthritis
Stiff joints in the mornings can be a big problem for people with arthritis

WHILE everyone can feel a like they need a good stretch first thing in the morning, for people living with arthritis, waking up with joints that have stiffened overnight can be a big problem.

"Mornings for people with arthritis can be a real challenge. Stiffness in the joints can mean it's difficult to get out of bed, and once actually out of bed, to stand straight, or even move at all," says Stewart Long, director of services at arthritis charity Versus Arthritis.

"For some people, morning stiffness can be accompanied by pain, which may be severe and occur all over the body, or just in certain joints. With some arthritis conditions, it may feel almost impossible to get out of bed due to the fear of widespread pain starting as soon as a person gets up."

Typically, people with osteoarthritis can struggle with this for around 30 minutes, while the hallmark for inflammatory arthritis (such as rheumatoid arthritis, or RA) is morning stiffness that makes it difficult to move for at least an hour.

It's thought it occurs due to the long period of inactivity overnight – known as the 'gel phenomenon', where the fluid in the joint thickens from the lack of movement during sleep – although another theory suggests that for people with RA, for example, the body releases insufficient amounts of the anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol during the night, leading to horribly stiff, sore joints on waking.

But if this all sounds painfully familiar, what can you do to help? Here are seven tips for managing arthritis-related morning stiffness - so you can rise and shine...

1. Stretch it out

There's no benefit in forcing joints to move. Instead, try to coax them into moving gently, but repeatedly, while you're in bed. Don't get up immediately, and instead stretch gently and do some range-of-motion exercises to warm up your muscles and loosen creaky joints. By introducing the following exercises at night, you'll find that being as mobile as possible before you go to sleep will make mornings easier.

Knees: Slowly bend and straighten each knee 15 times.

Hips: Gently pull your knees to your chest and lower 15 times.

Back: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the bed, and roll your knees from side to side for a minute.

"Gentle strengthening and stretching exercises can help to not only get the joints moving, helping to alleviate pain and stiffness, but will also help to build muscle strength to support the joints and nourish the areas where cartilage may be wearing away," explains Long.

2. Take early medication

Keep your pain or anti-inflammatory medication beside the bed, together with a glass of water and a snack like crackers (so you're not taking medication on an empty stomach). Set your alarm an hour before you need to get up, eat your snack and take the medication, and then roll over for another hour's sleep, giving the medicine time to work its magic and help ease your morning stiffness and pain.

3. Turn up the heat

Use electric blankets and hot-water bottles or wheat bags in bed, and once you're up, have a warm shower or bath, or apply hot pads to very sore joints, as any kind of heat is great for arthritis. Heat improves circulation, relaxes the muscles and soothes the nervous system, which reduces pain. Try to stay in the bath for 10 to 20 minutes, topping up with warmer water if necessary, while gently moving your joints and massaging them. In the shower, direct the spray to massage stiff, sore joints.

4. Get moving

It may be the last thing you feel like doing, but the stronger the muscles around the joints are, the better supported and less painful they'll be. Research consistently shows that exercise is beneficial for people living with arthritis, as it strengthens the heart, increases flexibility and mobility, and improves mood. Versus Arthritis says the best form of exercise is the one you'll do, so don't be afraid to try something different in your quest to be more active. "Finding the balance between rest and exercise is important," adds Long.

5. Dress smart

Arrange your clothes for the morning the night before, to help you get dressed with minimal pain and discomfort. Lay items out ready, and choose coats and jackets with a slippery lining to make them easier to get on and off. Alternatively, before you get dressed, put your clothes in the dryer for five minutes. and then put them straight on. The warmth from the dryer will help loosen your joints.

6. Go for a walk

Walking for 15-20 minutes a day strengthens the muscles that support your joints, and the gentle walking motion helps keep joints – even weight-bearing ones like knees or hips – from getting stiff and weak. In addition, keeping fit and strong can reduce the amount of time it takes to relieve stiffness and get going in the morning. So you don't have to go for a walk when you get up to relieve stiffness – your arthritic joints will become stronger and less stiff in the mornings from the exercise you do during the day.

7. Ask for help

Mornings are often hectic, and much harder when your joints are stiff and painful. So if you're struggling, ask for help from family or friends – they'll be pleased to be useful.

"Letting people around you know what you're experiencing and how it affects you in the morning can be helpful," says Long. "Asking for help and support where needed is vitally important."

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