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Letting Go of Muscle Tension

Letting Go of Muscle Tension

When we think of how rheumatoid arthritis affects the body, joints definitely get the lion’s share of the attention. However, as RA is a systemic disease, it can affect a large variety of components of the human body in addition to joints. For instance, it can cause skin rashes, affect organs such as the eyes, heart, and lungs, and impact soft tissue such as ligaments, tendons and muscles.

The muscle pain from RA can be due to actual inflammation of the muscle, a condition referred to as “myositis” that can cause weakness and discomfort. In addition, the pain and stress of RA can lead to muscle tension. I often find myself in a downward spiral, where one or more joints is in a lot of pain, so I compensate to protect that joint by moving differently than I normally would (such as limping or holding my arm close to my body to protect an inflamed wrist, elbow, or shoulder). This can increase muscle tension, as does the pain and the stress of being in pain. In turn, my rigid muscles pull on my joints, increasing the joint discomfort. The hurt and tension exacerbate one another in a vicious cycle. I’ve found that breaking that pattern can be an integral component of preventing or diminishing a full-blown flare.

However, relaxing joints in the midst of intense pain is easier said than done. Here are some of the methods I use in that effort.

Heat

One of the simplest ways to encourage my muscles to loosen up is to take a long, hot soak in the tub. Adding some lavender oil or scented bath salts can make the water feel softer and silkier and increase the relaxing effect. I love the penetrating heat of a hot bath, which always helps my muscles release.

That being said, there are times when my joints hurt so much that I can’t tolerate the body positioning required to fit in the bath tub. Sad to say, sometimes just having my knees bent without any support beneath them can be painful, as is sitting on a hard surface when my hips are inflamed. During such times, I rely on the heat of heating pads for large areas, and on rice packs for smaller joints and muscles.

Stretching

This is an excellent way to help muscles relax. There are times when my muscles are so tight that I cannot fall asleep until I’ve stretched. Most of us are familiar with basic stretching techniques, but these can be less than ideal when in a lot of pain. Therefore, we have to get creative. For instance, my quadriceps muscles often get really tight when my knees hurt. The standard way to stretch the front of the thighs is to stand on one leg and pull the other foot toward the buttock. Yet, when my knees or hips hurt, I can’t stand on one leg. Instead, I lie in bed on my side and stretch the top leg, then roll to the other side and stretch the other leg. With a little creativity (or online searching), a lot of stretches can be performed while sitting or lying down.

Sometimes my muscles are so tight, it’s painful to stretch them. During these times, I use a method I learned in yoga class. I take deep breaths, breathing into the discomfort, and tell my body, “It’s safe to let go.” I repeat this in my head while breathing deeply until my muscle begins to relax into the stretch.

Progressive relaxation

This is another method of relaxing muscles that can be performed lying down. To begin, lie on your back with your arms at your sides. Next, squeeze your toes and feet as tight as you can. Hold the squeeze for several seconds, then release. Then squeeze your calves tight, then release. Follow with your thighs, then your buttocks, then your arms and hands, and finally your face. To squeeze your face, pucker your lips, scrunch up your eyes, and hold your face as tight as you can, then release. This can increase blood flow into tight muscles, improving circulation which in turn helps muscles relax.

Muscle relaxers

While all of the aforementioned methods are helpful, there are times when I need some pharmacological assistance. Taking a muscle relaxer can mean the difference between getting a decent night’s sleep or spending the night endlessly tossing and turning. I have found that Flexeril does not cause as many unpleasant side effects for me as painkillers do. Painkillers can leave me wrestling with an infuriating combination of drowsiness and restlessness, which prevents deep sleep. Therefore, Flexeril is my nighttime drug of choice during a flare. Not only does it help me get some rest, but I generally find that my joints are not in as much pain the next morning after I’ve taken a drug that helps my muscles relax.

Finding ways to relax my muscles and reduce the strain on my joints can start an upward spiral out of a flare. Relaxing in the midst of pain is far easier said than done, but when I put the effort into helping my muscles release, I always experience at least some improvement in my level of pain.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

  • jan curtice
    3 years ago

    Well-written! Probably what has made the biggest difference to me and sore muscles is an electric blanket. I sleep with one (sometimes 2) year round. The heat keeps my muscles/joints nice and warm so they don’t “freeze” up during the night. I use my electric blanket as a mattress pad so I don’t get overheated. There are times, my pain is elevated to the point where I add a second blanket on top to cocoon my body in the gentle heat. The electric blanket is like being wrapped in a huge heating pad, only better. There are heated mattress pads. For whatever reason, they do not work as effectively. I’m with you on the flexeril. Soldiering on RD Warriors! =^^=

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    3 years ago

    Hi Jan, thanks so much for sharing this great tip! I have not tried an electric blanket, but I frequently sleep on top of a heating pad when my hips are hurting, so I can see many benefits of sleeping on top of an electric blanket. Also, when my joints are really sensitive having a blanket on top of me can feel like too much pressure on my joints, and this would provide the warmth without the weight of a blanket on top. Thanks for being part of our community!

  • melody123
    3 years ago

    Flexeril is a very helpful drug. My rheumatologist told me to take one every evening. Do not stop and start. The first pill put me to sleep but after the first few days that side effect wore off. He says that I may take up to three a day during the day if I am having a lot of joint or muscle or tendon pain. This method works well for me. I also take Orencia intravenous every month The biologics are very important. I have tried massage which is helpful but wears off after a couple days. Also very expensive. So far I have avoided narcotics as they don’t work too well and the doctors don’t like to prescribe them. I have had many rheumatologists in the last 15years but this dr explained it the best as if I just took one now and then it knocked me out so I didn’t care for it much. I hope this is helpful to someone. I do wonder how the author of this article can work with the public as every time I tried it I always catch an illness.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    3 years ago

    Hi Melody, thanks so much for sharing your regimen and your doctor’s advice with us! It is helpful to know what works for others, so I appreciate you sharing with the group.

    You are right that catching illnesses is indeed a frequent problem. I do catch far more colds and infections than my peers with non-compromised immune systems. Last year I even caught whooping cough! So it is indeed a struggle.

    Thanks again for being part of our community!

  • ellen d.
    3 years ago

    Has anyone tried therapeutic massage for pain relief in addition to releasing muscle tension? If so, was it helpful?

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    3 years ago

    Hi Ellen, I have used therapeutic massage, and do indeed find it helpful. The reason I don’t have regular massages is the cost and time involved (I’m a working mom with two small kids and I struggle to find the time to give my body the care it needs). That being said, every time that I get a therapeutic massage I’m very glad I did. The word you used, “therapeutic,” is key, as I have had massages from several practitioners, and while they all feel good, when I’ve gone to someone who really understands the way the body operates I find that the positive effects are longer lasting. If you end up trying out therapeutic massage I welcome you to share with us whether or not you found it helpful.

  • Larry Sawyer
    3 years ago

    in leu of hard drugs and along with the muscle relaxer i add 4 mg of Valium to the mix, do my relaxation on a 3 foot hot pad which can be situated under hips, shoulders etc. being a side sleeper I also have a small pillow i can shim under the high side wrist or elbow that is in pain so that it does not have to stretch. I also keep a small med journal to keep track of what doses work , in what combinations, and nasty side effects. Been at this since 1979,remember the dose makes the poison so a med journal allows one to reduce dosage, looking for the optimum dose.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    3 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing all of these tips of what works for you, as they may be helpful to others as well. We appreciate you being part of our community!

  • allenS
    3 years ago

    I love hot baths and showers! About 3 years ago I had to stop. I break out in a horrible rash that stays and has to be treated. It just doesn’t go away as I cool down. So, I am stuck with Luke-warm baths and showers now! I have tried a few times since it first started and I still break out!

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    3 years ago

    Thanks for sharing that tip, Melody!

  • melody123
    3 years ago

    I found that cera-ve lotion helps my rash. I found this tip on an RA site. You can buy it over the counter and it is inexpensive.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    3 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing, Allen! Our bodies can make us feel like we’re playing “discomfort dodgeball” sometimes, huh? Have you even mentioned this reaction to your rheumatologist or a dermatologist? It might be worth looking into why this happens to you, if you haven’t already. I wish you all the best, Tamara

  • cw_mommy
    3 years ago

    I’ve been seeing a rheumatologist for about 8 months now and so far he’s diagnosed me with Fibromyalgia and he is really leaning towards RA…which I’m not at all surprised about given my symptoms and how long I’ve been dealing with them…but recently I’ve experienced some “flares” that have topped my worst flares in all my years of pain in my joints! I am currently taking Gabapentin for the Fibro, Tylenol/Codeine as needed for pain, Zanaflex as needed, and Arava for the RA symptoms….my hips have been on FIRE for 5 days now and they’re keeping me up ALL NIGHT….with the hip pain and knee and ankle pain, I cannot sit, lie, or stand comfortably no matter what I do! To top it off I have woke up in the middle of the night for the last 3 nights with a horrible tension headache that continues on into the day….this is awful! I was just curious if Arava can make the pain worse if it’s not the right biologic for me? Cause it seems like the pain or flare ups have gotten so much worse since I’ve been on the Arava,but I only started about 2 weeks ago with this medication, but then again the weather has been awful and I always suffer a great deal of flares with weather changes and maybe I’m just having a lot of flares and it’s not the medication?

  • melody123
    3 years ago

    I have had RA since 2001. It takes a while to get on the correct medicine. I also am a registered nurse and knew to call the doctor if still in pain. Generally the doctor will assess what medicine is needed by you telling him how much pain your having and assessing your joint pain. I never used prednisone and I don’t like that drug as it is very hard to get off of. My mother had RA and that was all they had back then to help. Now there are much better medications. I take cymbalta 60mg a day for pain and use Orencia intravenous once a month and enteric coated sulfasalizine Arava I took for many years but not on its own. Methotrexate made me nauseas so we went to enbrel shots twice a week [they teach you] and Arava That wasn’t strong enough either so we went to Remicade intravenous and Arava That worked well but the new Orencia is what worked best for me. I also recommend talking to a therapist on your journey to find answers. They have been very helpful to me. Also it was a psychiatrist who recommended cymbalta 60mg per day which helps me. You might also check into a pain doctor or clinic to find valuable tools for your pain. Flexeril at night helps me too. Try to establish a good communication with your rheumatologist as he can only help you if he knows what’s going on with you. Try not to worry. A friend or family member would be helpful if they can go with you to take you to the dr but I did it on my own. RA is a serious disease that can permanently damage your joints. Usually the rheumatologists are aggressive at getting it under control as once your joints are damaged it can’t be reversed but if you are careful you can prevent joint damage by getting on the right medicine. I don’t think you are having a reaction personally to the Arava but I don’t think it alone is strong enough for you. Be aggressive to get rid of the pain is my best advice. Good luck to you

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    3 years ago

    I’m so sorry that you’re having such a hard time! I definitely recommend you talk to your rheumatologist right away to let him know how much pain you’re in. He may decide to do a round of prednisone, which often brings some quick relief. He would also be the best person to determine the possible effects Arava might be having on you. I would be surprised if it was making your symptoms worse, but I’m not a doctor. In my personal experience, whenever I’ve taken a drug that didn’t help (and I’ve taken many drugs that didn’t help), they didn’t exacerbate my symptoms but they didn’t reduce them either. To clarify, Arava is not a biologic. It’s a traditional DMARD, like Methotrexate. Here is some information on it: https://rheumatoidarthritis.net/treatment/arava/. The biologic DMARDs are often more effective than the traditional DMARDs, and when used in combination with a traditional DMARD may have the greatest impact on disease activity. However, insurance companies won’t cover biologics until traditional DMARDs have been tried. Here is some information on biologics: https://rheumatoidarthritis.net/treatment/biologics-treatment-options-for-ra/. I just wanted to point this out, as there is a whole group of drugs that you’ve not yet tried, so there’s plenty of room to hope that the right drug treatment/combo is still out there for you. Again, I recommend you put in a call to your doctor right away so that he’s aware of how intense your symptoms are, and hopefully he can prescribe something like a steroid that will bring some rapid decrease in your inflammation. Wishing you all the best, Tamara

  • beth54
    3 years ago

    Since I started taking a muscle relaxer at night my world has changed. I very rarely need a pain killer and I wake up feeling rested and am not limping when I get out of bed. I also take Humira and methotrexate. I was using pain killers too often due to not sleeping well. Thank goodness for my RA Dr. She is the greatest and really listens and is willing to make adjustments based on how you feel not just what she sees.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    3 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing, Beth! I’m so glad that your doctor is compassionate and responsive, and has worked with you to find something that helps so much.

  • jopilc52
    3 years ago

    I found that a hot bath helped a lot when I hurt so bad in the past. Unfortunately I can no longer get in the tub. A heating pad is my go to helper now.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    3 years ago

    Thanks for sharing!

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