Living with a Rheumatic Disease

Living with a rheumatic disease does not necessarily mean living a limited lifestyle. With proper management, a rheumatic disease often does not have to hinder your daily activities.

Photo of mother and child walking in the woods

Exercise and rheumatic diseases

Exercise, when done correctly, can help reduce rheumatic disease symptoms, including the following:

  • Preventing joint stiffness

  • Keeping muscles strong around the joints

  • Improving joint flexibility

  • Reducing swelling

  • Reducing pain

  • Maintaining strong and healthy bone and cartilage tissue

  • Improving joint alignment

  • Improving overall fitness

Exercise is often times an integral part of a person's overall treatment plan for arthritis or other rheumatic diseases. In addition, exercise may help with weight reduction and increase your sense of well-being. There are three main types of exercises that may be beneficial for persons with rheumatic diseases, including the following:

Photo of older man adjusting his bicycle

  • Range-of-motion exercises. Range-of-motion exercises focus on moving the joints in certain directions to improve flexibility and reduce stiffness.

  • Strengthening exercises. Strengthening exercises help increase or maintain muscle strength around the joints, keeping joints more stable. Two common strengthening exercises include isometric (tightening muscles without using joints) and isotonic (strengthening muscles by using the joints) exercises.

  • Fitness exercises. Fitness exercises improve a person's endurance and cardiovascular health, while keeping muscles strong and joints more flexible. Types of fitness exercises appropriate for most persons with rheumatic diseases include walking, water exercise, and bicycling.

Always consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

Diet and weight management and rheumatic diseases

Although studies are underway to examine the effects of diet on rheumatic disease, researchers do not fully understand the role of diet in rheumatic disease. However, the Arthritis Foundation recommends the following dietary guidelines for people with arthritis and other rheumatic diseases:

  • Variety. Eating a variety of foods from the five different food groups supplies your body with the nutrients it needs. The strain of cooking certain foods combined with fatigue, pain, and certain medications may make it more difficult for a person with rheumatic disease to eat healthy. However, new appliances, resting in-between food preparations, and occasional use of convenience foods can help you eat a more varied diet.

  • Weight. By maintaining your ideal weight, you can reduce the strain on your weight-bearing joints, such as the knees and hips. When trying to lose weight, a person should eat less and exercise more.

  • Fat, cholesterol, and sugar. Avoiding too much fat, cholesterol, and sugar in your diet also may help maintain your ideal weight. In addition, older adults with rheumatic disease may have high blood pressure and heart disease, which can largely be prevented with a proper diet.

  • Starch and fiber. A diet high in starch and fiber increases your energy level and makes bowel movements more regular. In addition, many foods high in starch and/or fiber are often low in fat, helping keep weight at a healthy level.

  • Sodium (salt). A low-salt diet may benefit many older adults with rheumatic disease who have high blood pressure. Sodium can cause water retention which can aggravate high blood pressure. Some convenience foods, such as frozen meals and fast food, are high in sodium. In addition, certain medications cause the body to retain too much sodium.

  • Alcohol. Alcohol consumption can affect a medication's effectiveness. In addition, alcohol can cause weight gain and weaken bones. Care should be taken when drinking alcohol. Always consult your doctor concerning how alcohol affects your medications and your health.

The following is a list of certain food associations and specific rheumatic diseases:

  • Purines. Purines are the components in certain foods that convert to uric acid in the body. High levels of uric acid have been linked to the onset of gout.

  • Low-calcium and high-alcohol diets. Diets low in calcium but high in alcohol intake may increase a person's chance of developing osteoporosis, a bone deteriorating disease.

  • Food contamination. Certain bacteria on foods, such as Salmonella, may lead to infectious arthritis.

Psychosocial management of rheumatic diseases

Living with chronic pain and fatigue may leave a person feeling depressed and less able to cope with the pain. A cycle of pain, depression, and stress may keep a person from living his or her life to the fullest. Managing pain in a positive manner and taking charge can help break such a cycle. Part of proper pain management involves getting plenty of rest to preserve energy, including the following:

  • Adequate sleep. Good quality sleep is important in maintaining your energy level and restoring your spirit. Sleep also allows the joints to rest. Sometimes, an afternoon nap is beneficial in giving the joints a chance to rest.

  • Relaxation. Being able to relax can help to minimize the stress in your life, thus minimize symptoms. A relaxed body means the muscles are relaxed, relieving some of the pain associated with rheumatic disease. Many different relaxation techniques exist, including the following:

    • Imagery. You picture pleasant scenes.

    • Prayer. This may provide soothing inspiration.

    • Hypnosis. This technique focuses attention internally to create a deep form of relaxation.

    • Biofeedback. This method uses sensitive electrical equipment to help become aware of your body's reactions to stress, pain, and relaxation.

Consult your doctor for more information about healthy living with a rheumatic disease.