There are many ways to manage arthritis pain and get pain relief. No single treatment is guaranteed to produce complete and consistent relief from pain. Often, you need a combination of methods. And you may need to add or stop a treatment over time as your condition changes.
You may get pain relief from nonprescription medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve). Or your doctor can prescribe a stronger medication if those don’t work. But you may have side effects or the medications might not provide complete relief for you. Here are other proven methods you can try to soothe arthritis pain in addition to pills and medical treatments.
Learn about your arthritis pain
Knowledge is power. Find out all you can about pain treatments that are available for you. The more you know, the more you can do. Make your pain a priority to your doctor and your family and friends, so they can support you. Don’t try to tough it out. Talk to your doctor if your pain changes or gets worse.
Take care of your body
- Eat well. To stay as healthy as possible, give your body the best nourishment it needs. You can start making healthier food choices today. Instead of potato chips, reach for an apple and a handful of nuts to snack on.
- Improve your posture. Good posture can prevent future arthritis pain. Years of compensating for a sore knee can result in pain in a hip or ankle. Jutting the abdomen forward can cause lower back pain, as can slouching in a desk chair. Consult a physical therapist. A physical therapist can observe how you sit, stand and walk and teach you how to adjust your posture so you can move with less pain.
- Stay active. Regular exercise strengthens muscles that support the joints and improves flexibility and balance. To start, try a 20–30 minute walk four times a week. If you are new to exercise, a physical therapist can suggest appropriate movements that will improve your strength and range of motion.
- Take a break. Balance activity with periods of rest. Rest can help reduce inflammation. If you need to, take time out to relax your entire body by lying down for 15 minutes. Or allow a specific joint to rest by wearing a brace or splint. Letting yourself refresh mentally and physically can reduce arthritis pain and restore energy.
Use Heat and Cold
Warming tissues eases arthritis pain by increasing blood flow to affected areas, which decreases inflammation, relaxes tight muscles, and eliminates waste products, like lactic acid, that cause stiffness and soreness. Cold decreases blood flow to reduce swelling, slows the transmission of pain signals through nerves, and inhibits inflammatory chemicals. Cold therapy is best for pain and swelling after exercise, during a flare, or in the first 48 to 72 hours after an injury. Here are some ways to soothe joint pain with heat and cold at home:
- Warm bath. Taking a warm bath can bring immediate pain relief to sore and stiff joints. If you have respiratory or cardiac problems that may keep you from using warm water therapy, or if you are older than 70 (as we age, our bodies do not regulate heat as well), check with your doctor before trying this method. If only your hands or feet are affected, you may try soaking them in a tub with warm water.
- Heating Pad. Electric heating pads are a good choice for relieving lower back pain, neck pain, pain in the knee and other body parts. Be sure to follow directions for use to prevent burns. Do not use electric pads along with heat-inducing creams. Try microwaveable pads or heating pads with automatic off-switches in case you doze off.
- Heat wrap. Low-level continuous heat wraps can be worn on various parts of the body, including the neck, elbow, lower back, and knee, without coming off. You can even sleep with it on!
- Alternate warm and cold. Try alternating soaks in warm and cold water, especially if you have swelling. Fill one sink with cold water (65 degrees Fahrenheit) and another with warm water (110 degrees Fahrenheit). Leave your hands or feet in the warm water for five to 10 minutes, and then switch to cold for one minute. Return to the warm for three to four minutes, and then switch to cold for another minute. Repeat this four or five times.
- Wax. Coating hands or feet in melted paraffin wax traps the heat on your sore joints. Leave wax on while it cools and hardens, then peel away. In addition to easing arthritis pain, the wax softens your skin.
- Cool it off. To do a 10-minute ice massage, fill up small paper or foam cups about one third full and freeze them. When ready to use, peel away the top of the cup to expose the ice and gently slide over the painful area. Try to avoid the bony parts of the joint, such as the knee cap and elbow points. Cover the affected area with a plastic wrap before applying the ice to protect the skin, and place a towel underneath to pick up the moisture as the ice melts. You can also use ice cubes wrapped in plastic for smaller areas. Cold packs and wraps applied for 15 to 30 minutes may also relieve sore lower back or shoulders.
Try proven complementary therapies
Acupuncture. This ancient practice can significantly reduce pain and improve function in people with some forms of arthritis who are in moderate or severe pain despite taking anti-inflammatory or pain medications. However, it requires patience. It may take several weeks (up to 14) before you feel any better.
Massage. Various forms of body work can provide temporary pain relief. You can try full-body Swedish massage for stress relief and relaxation; deep-tissue massage, which uses pressure and slow strokes on deeper muscle tissue to release knots and relieve tension; or myofascial release, which uses long, stretching strokes to relieve tension around the connective tissue of the muscles.
Calm the mind to calm the body
Certain psychotherapy techniques may help you ease anxiety, reduce emotional distress, and get better sleep, which may help you cope with pain:
- Hypnosis. This practice can help people manage pain or shift their attention away from it. In a hypnotic state, you give control to your subconscious mind. Your overworked conscious mind takes a break, allowing you to reach a state of deep relaxation.
- Biofeedback. You can learn to control your body’s responses to pain triggers. In biofeedback, through sensors connected to your body, a machine will show how thoughts and actions can affect your autonomic nervous system. This controls the heart, lungs, stomach and intestines, as well as the release of stress hormones. Learning how to control breathing and heart rate will allow you to control other physical reactions, such as pain.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In CBT, a psychotherapist helps you identify problematic behaviors (like becoming less active or doing fewer fun activities in response to pain), negative thoughts (about self, others and the future) and feelings (depression, guilt, anxiety). This can increase your awareness of how problematic patterns develop and help you understand the connection between thought patterns and feelings. You are then trained in pain coping skills, such as relaxation techniques, imagery, and goal setting, encouraging you to have an active role in managing and controlling pain. CBT can increase your ability to control pain while acknowledging that there may be occasionally flares beyond your control.
- Learn about other natural therapies for pain relief
- Mind Body Pain Relief
- A Healing Touch: The Benefits of Massage for Arthritis