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.