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My Tool Kit: Over-the-Counter Support for Managing My RA

Last updated: August 2022

Joint pain, swelling, redness, and stiffness have plagued me for a long time.

From high SED rates to waking up during the night screaming in pain as a child, I’ve experienced joint distress for most of my life. At times, the pain has been crippling and I've found myself curled up, crying, looking for anything I could try at home to help.

While I am now grateful to be on a biologic medication which generally does a decent job at managing both my rheumatoid arthritis and my Crohn’s disease, I’m still not exempt from the symptoms and discomfort caused by my RA.

Tools for RA pain relief

Over the past several years, I’ve spent a lot of energy and effort doing research. I wanted to identify anything non-prescription based or over-the-counter that I could keep on-hand and use in tandem with my medications to support my health and provide relief when I entered any type of flare-up.

In general, it seems that there are products and tools available across a few different categories, and I wanted to share with you my experiences with some of these items. I hope that some of the recommendations below might give you ideas on things to try when managing your own RA symptoms!

Thermotherapy for RA

Many RA patients have discovered that ice and/or heat in different situations has been beneficial in managing their pain. My RA tends to respond best to heat, but I know this varies so much from patient to patient. I always recommend that you trust your gut, and I think it’s worth trying both cold and hot therapy until you find which is most beneficial for your pain.

For heat, some things I recommend include:

  • Heating pad (plug-in or heat up in the microwave)
  • Heated blanket
  • Taking a hot shower or bath
  • Using warm clothes/gloves/socks to keep joints warm and cozy
  • Getting dressed with extra layers!

I also am a huge fan of instant hot packs that can go in your shoes/slippers or adhere to your skin, if you have to be out and about. In general, when my pain is increasing, I look for the nearest and most convenient heat option. Heat therapy also helps me to avoid stiffness or locking of joints which I have experienced in the past.

Topicals for rheumatoid arthritis pain relief

There are so many options for topical pain support available, and I feel like I’ve tried a good variety of them:

  • Capsaicin cream
  • Icy Hot (patches, balm, spray)
  • Tiger Balm (ointment, rub, gel)
  • BioFreeze (gel, patches)
  • Arnica (gel, cream)
  • Salonpas patches

I’ve had some temporary pain relief and support from each of these, and I don't think there’s harm in trying a few different ones. My personal favorites have been Tiger Balm Active Muscle Gel (easiest application) and Arnica Cream (longest sense of relief). I usually keep a few different types in the house so if one isn’t helpful when my pain is increasing, I have another option on hand. I like being able to target my uncomfortable joints topically rather than trying to take oral medication, wait for it to be absorbed, and then travel to the area in question.

Note: I always recommend checking with your doctor first before adding anything to your treatment regimen.

Physical items

Braces (ex: wrist brace, ankle brace, knee brace) - sometimes, having these available on hand is more helpful than I can explain. If a certain joint is feeling particularly painful, needing to be stabilized or protected, I turn to braces for short periods of time. These can all be purchased online or at your local pharmacy (and sometimes even grocery store) and can really help!

TENS Unit: one of my favorite tools. This is a non-invasive machine that sends pulses to your skin and nerve fibers, which help suppress the pain signals to the brain. Again, there are several purchase options online and provide a great non-medication option for RA pain management.

Over-the-counter NSAIDs

Because I also have Crohn’s disease, I am unable to use NSAIDs in any format. But I know for other patients things like ibuprofen, naproxen, and Celebrex can be helpful orally. Diclofenac and Voltaren are also great NSAID topical pain management options for RA. These are definitely worth discussing with your doctor, and I wanted to include them here, although I can't report back directly on personal experiences with them.

If you have tried other over the counter items that you've stored in your RA toolkit, would you comment below? I'm always looking for new ideas!

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