7 Ways to Manage Arthritis Pain and Stiffness

Eating a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods like salmon may help with arthritis pain relief.
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Pain from arthritis can be unpleasant to say the least, but there are a number of natural and over-the-counter home remedies you can try in order to get relief and make everyday activities more manageable.

Arthritis statistics show more than 23 percent of adults in the U.S. have the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while symptoms vary across the different types of arthritis (there are over 100), the most common markers of the condition include pain, redness, stiffness and swelling in the joints.

While there is no permanent cure for arthritis, you can take steps to manage your individual symptoms.

"Improving one's arthritis pain can and will be a lifelong journey," Maria Kyriacou, MD, a primary care sports medicine physician at Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute in South Florida, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "There will be both good and bad days. However, the goal is to minimize the frequency of your bad days."

Here are some expert-approved home remedies to consider for arthritis pain relief.

1. Try an Anti-Inflammatory Pain Medication

Pain is a common symptom of arthritis, which is why many physicians prescribe pain medications, such as opioids. Talk to your health care provider about whether a prescription pain medication is right for you.

You can also take over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as acetaminophen (found in Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen sodium (Aleve), which can help reduce joint pain triggered by increased activity, Velimir Petkov, DPM, a podiatrist who treats foot arthritis at Premier Podiatry in Clifton, New Jersey, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

For joint pain specific to an area, Dr. Petkov recommends an anti-inflammatory gel, as it can be applied to reduce swelling, redness and pain.

You can purchase some gels OTC, but others may need a prescription, depending on the strength level. Brands recommended by the Arthritis Foundation include Voltaren (available OTC) and Solaraze (by prescription).

2. Stay Active

Make time for daily movement to help manage osteoarthritis pain.
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Regular exercise is critical for people with arthritis, according to a September 2018 study in the ​Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.​ Not only can it reduce joint pain, but it helps with managing weight (which can take some pressure off the joints), strengthening the muscles around the affected joints and combatting fatigue.

"I recommend daily physical activity and weight loss (if appropriate) to all of my patients," Robert Koval, MD, a rheumatologist at Texas Orthopedics, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Exercising helps with all types of inflammatory arthritis. This helps avoid the 'gelling' phenomenon, where patients feel more stiff when they slow down and rest. This is thought to be due to the fluid in the joints (synovial fluid) thickening, thus causing more pain with movement."

Exercise also helps reduce stress, is great for mental health and has been shown to decrease inflammation, Dr. Koval says.

Tip

Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (think: walking, biking) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (running) each week, along with at least two strength-training sessions, per the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. If you're new to exercise, though, ease into it — check out these tips to help you get started.

3. Optimize Your Diet

"Dietary changes are very important when dealing with all types of arthritis," says Dr. Koval. He often recommends a Mediterranean diet to his patients, which includes many anti-inflammatory foods.

Indeed, a December 2017 study in ​Rheumatology International ​found the diet can help reduce pain and increase physical function in people living with rheumatoid arthritis.

The Mediterranean diet is based on vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, beans and whole grains. It is a plant-based diet that can easily align with vegetarians and vegans alike, as it includes fewer meat options.

How to Get Started

One key part of the diet is fish such as salmon, mackerel and albacore tuna, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat that has been shown to decrease inflammation in the body.

"Research has shown that both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are found in fish oil, have an anti-inflammatory effect," Dr. Petkov says.

Tip

Aim to eat a 3- to 6-ounce serving of fatty fish two to four times a week, per the Arthritis Foundation, and opt for fish that are relatively low in mercury, such as salmon, sardines, Atlantic mackerel and black cod.

Dr. Koval also recommends avoiding processed foods and excess carbohydrates because foods high in sugar and trans fat can increase inflammation in the body.

4. Try Hot or Cold Therapy

Taking a warm bath may help ease the stiffness that comes with arthritis.
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"Heat or cold (sometimes alternating both) has been shown to help with patients' pain perception," says Dr. Koval.

When to use hot therapy:​ Heat has been shown to increase blood flow and warm up joints, muscles and tendons, and is used more in inflammatory arthritis, explains Dr. Koval.

Some ways you can engage in heat therapy are trying a warm compress or taking a warm bath to ease stiffness, says Dr. Kyriacou. "Typically a heating pad or an electric blanket works best, but please make sure your doctor is in agreement that this is an appropriate choice," she adds.

Ointments or topicals can provide a sense of warmth on the joints as well. Dr. Koval especially recommends ointments with capsaicin, as it "works to distract the pain fibers from the underlying process causing pain." Popular over-the-counter capsaicin medications include Capzasin and Zostrix.

When to use cold therapy:​ Degenerative arthritis (aka osteoarthritis or "wear and tear" arthritis) tends to respond well to cold therapy, which decreases blood flow by constricting vessels and can numb the pain, Dr. Koval says.

An easy way to find relief with cold therapy is to apply a gel ice pack or a bag of frozen vegetables on the affected area until symptoms improve, explains Dr. Kyriacou.

"The recommended time frame to keep this compress on is usually 20 minutes with the cold compress on and 10 minutes off. Make sure to have a cloth between the ice pack and your skin as you never want it directly touching your skin," she says.

5. Get a Massage

A November 2014 study in the Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice Journalfound that people with rheumatoid arthritis experienced better grip strength and greater range of motion in their joints after receiving moderate pressure massage therapy for one month.

For those with knee osteoarthritis, regular massages may help decrease pain and improve mobility, according to a December 2018 study in the ​Journal of General Internal Medicine​.

Dr. Petkov highly recommends foot massage to his patients to manage the pain of foot arthritis.

"It creates a variety of different benefits for helping ease the pain," he says. "One of those benefits is improving blood flow. When the foot is being massaged properly, it can aid in lessening the swelling and stiffness."

Keep in mind, though, that 2019 guidelines from the American College of Rheumatology and Arthritis Foundation currently do not endorse massage therapy as a possible treatment, as there is not enough research in the field to prove it helps.

So, if you are interested in getting a massage to alleviate pain or other symptoms, speak to your health care provider and a licensed massage therapist for further guidance.

6. Keep Your Stress Levels Low

Daily meditation could help reduce your stress and its negative health effects.
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It can be hard to cope with the pain and other symptoms you may be experiencing with arthritis. Understand that you are not alone and that your feelings are valid.

Dr. Koval emphasizes the importance of reducing stress, as stress has negative health outcomes when it comes to arthritis.

"Studies have shown that stress directly contributes to inflammation and tends to increase pain in all forms of arthritis," he says. "This creates a vicious cycle, as the pain and inflammation then leads to more stress."

It is normal to feel frustrated or anxious at times, but if you have a hard time coping with your emotions, consider seeking support from a mental health professional (the Mayo Clinic offers helpful tips for finding a mental health care provider). Coping mechanisms like meditation, exercise and deep breathing may also be helpful to reduce day-to-day stress and pain.

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7. Consider Taking an Herbal Supplement

Scientific research has yet to confirm that any herbs or supplements can help ease arthritis. And keep in mind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements for safety. But when taken with your doctor's blessing, some may be helpful when you're dealing with arthritis.

"Some of my patients with arthritic pain reported herbal supplements such as turmeric, ginkgo, glucosamine and chondroitin have helped them to ease the pain," says Dr. Kyriacou.

Warning

Supplements may interact with each other or with other physician-prescribed medications, so be sure to talk to your doctor before adding any to your regimen.

Curcumin, found in the turmeric spice, may be a good option to treat arthritis, according to an April 2019 study published in Trials Journal. In the study, patients who took curcumin reported the same improvements in pain relief compared to those who took diclofenac, a common anti-inflammatory pain medication used to treat arthritis.

While this seems promising, these supplements are not widely researched and there's still a lot of unknown information on how well they work and what amounts are safe.

"Products like CBD oil and many other OTC or compounded topicals can provide some pain relief as well," says Dr. Koval, who encourages they only be used under the guidance of a health care professional.

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