Counting My Blessings: Over-the-Counter Aids

While the holidays can be wonderful, all the holiday cheer can also highlight the aspects of our lives that make it hard to feel cheerful. RA can bring out the Grinch in me, so inspired by the Whos down in Whoville who sing in spite of their loss, I am challenging myself to think about all that I can be grateful for. This series will spotlight the elements that make life with RA easier for me to bear.

We all know that Rheumatoid Arthritis causes swelling and pain that can range from a dull, persistent ache to sharp, shooting pain, and most of us are familiar with the pros and cons of using prescription medical treatments to battle these ailments. While prescriptions can create a significant decrease in symptoms and can even modify disease activity, they can cause unpleasant side effects, they can be painful and/or time-consuming to administer (if in injection or IV form), and they can be incredibly expensive, at times to the point of being cost-prohibitive. Therefore, while I’m grateful prescription options exist, I am also grateful that I can complement medications with some over-the-counter aids.

Splints. When it comes to value, I don’t think there’s a tool in my RA-toolbox with better bang for its buck. My splints cost $15 each at my local pharmacy, and last for years. If I were to divide that cost by the number of hours I have spent in them, I’d arrive at a figure of less than a penny an hour. Of course, splints can be uncomfortable and sweaty, and require frequent washing to avoid getting yucky. However, when my wrists are inflamed and in pain, nothing brings that pain to a bearable level as quickly as the support from splints. They certainly do not eliminate my discomfort, but they often make it possible to sleep on nights when my wrist pain would have kept me awake at all hours. Indispensible on road trips (whether on vacation or on the hour-long drive to my rheumatologist’s office), my wrist splints greatly increase the amount of time I can steer before the strain of holding my hands steady on the wheel pushes my wrists into serious pain territory.

Having tried many models over the decades that I’ve had issues with my wrists, I’ve been happy to find one that has open areas on both sides of the arm, which allows for greater air flow and decreases sweat and itchiness. Additionally, the comfort pads inside the splints are attached to the plastic molding with velcro, so they can be removed and washed thoroughly. In the world of chronic illness, it is rare to find something that brings any noticeable level of comfort at such a low price.

Heating pad/packs. Oh blessed warmth on my bones. I know that ice is the traditional method for inflammation, but I often find that icing a really painful joint increases the discomfort, and I can’t always tolerate it. Heat, on the other hand, brings me soothing comfort. As with splints, heat will not take away all of my pain, but it can take the edge off intense discomfort, ameliorating at least some of the pain. When large areas like my hips or sacroiliac joints are flaring, lying on a heating pad is a key component of my self-care. For smaller areas like a shoulder or knee, a rice pack fresh out of the microwave conforms to the contours of the joint and emits deep, penetrating heat. Of course, using these methods requires one to be still, so resting the joint is also an important byproduct of using heat. However, I have found that without the warmth my body remains tense even while resting, which results in additional strain as muscles and tendons tug on joints. Heat seems to penetrate my spirit as much as it does my muscles and bones, sending the message throughout that it’s okay to be calm and that relief is possible.

Pain relief patches. Years ago I shared a concern with my rheumatologist that I was taking too much Tylenol (which, for whatever reason, has always seemed to help me more than other analgesics, even those with anti-inflammatory attributes). I was worried Tylenol could damage my liver over time. Prescription painkillers create significant side effects for me, so taking Tylenol throughout the day was a way to alleviate some of the pain without compromising my ability to focus and stay alert. For this reason, over-the-counter painkillers are also OTC aids for which I am grateful. However, while they are able to slightly decrease the pain in my joints, I do worry about the impact of ingesting medication on the rest of my body. My rheumatologist did not share my concern about the amount of Tylenol I was taking, stating that she deemed it safe for me to continue the dosage of medication I was using. However she did listen to my concern and suggested that if I wanted to cut down on my acetaminophen usage, I could try topical analgesic pads.

I’d tried various ointments and gels in the past without much benefit, and with some annoyance at the sensation and scent of some of the products, but the adhesive pads she recommended were new to me. While they do have a scent due to the ingredients used, it isn’t one that bothers me, and the sensation is one of heat without too much tingling or burning. I quickly found these pads bring me as much relief as Tylenol, so on days when I’m experiencing mild pain I can treat it without any pills. I keep them handy in my purse, my car, and my desk (inside a ziplock bag so that the scent doesn’t permeate my handbag or drawer), and use them frequently.

Again, I recognize the limitations of over-the-counter aids, and there have been plenty of times when my pain is too intense for non-prescription remedies to make a dent in my discomfort. However, they often do decrease the pain, and even if the effect is only slight, I’m grateful for any improvement. It’s helpful to have a number of tools in my RA toolbox, and I’m glad that they don’t all have to carry high price tags.

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