If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you know that the condition can leave you feeling fatigued. And it’s not just that you’re tired at the end of the day or the week. The overwhelming exhaustion that can accompany RA can leave you feeling so drained of energy that you can’t manage to get through your day. You can be so tired that you have to reschedule appointments or give up activities that you enjoy, and you may have trouble concentrating.
While fatigue is common in people with rheumatoid arthritis, there are steps you can take to increase your energy levels so you can take part in more of your daily activities. Edwin Aquino, MD, a rheumatologist at Banner Health in Tucson, AZ, told us more about the causes of rheumatoid arthritis fatigue and what you can do to minimize them.
Why rheumatoid arthritis makes you feel tired
When you have RA, certain types of cells cause inflammation. Along with joint pain and swelling, which are common symptoms of RA, this inflammation can affect your central nervous system in ways that cause fatigue. “This fatigue can be so draining that it has a very negative impact on the quality of life for people with RA,” Dr. Aquino said.
Factors that can impact RA fatigue
When the inflammation that RA causes is active or difficult to control, you’ll probably feel more fatigued. In addition, pain from RA can make it harder for you to sleep well, which makes you feel more tired.
Dr. Aquino points out that fatigue is a symptom caused by many different conditions. So, don’t just assume that it’s RA causing your fatigue. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms, since they might be caused by thyroid disease, fibromyalgia, mood disorders, sleep apnea, or medications.
How to minimize RA fatigue
Here are a few steps that may help reduce the fatigue you’re feeling from RA.
- Exercise. If you’re feeling fatigued, exercise is probably the last thing you’re interested in trying. But moving your body could be just what you need. “Exercise can help significantly with fatigue,” Dr. Aquino said.
A progressive approach works for many people. That’s when you start with just several minutes of exercise and slowly increase the frequency and intensity with a goal of 20 to 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Some good options for exercise are walking, swimming, light weightlifting and tai chi. Stretching is also crucial since it can help maintain flexibility in your joints.
- An anti-inflammatory diet. Since inflammation drives RA, reducing it can help ease symptoms. You’ll want to focus on vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats and cut back on added sugar, sweetened drinks and fried foods. This type of diet can also help you maintain an ideal body weight, which puts less stress on your weight-bearing joints.
- Sleep. Pain from RA can make it challenging to get the restful sleep you need. If you find that pain is waking you up at night, talk to your doctor about taking acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) before bedtime.
- Smoking cessation. Smoking can trigger RA symptoms and can prevent your medications from working correctly. So, if you smoke or use tobacco products, talk to your doctor about smoking cessation programs.
- Medication. When your RA symptoms flare, you might need more medication to control your inflammation and reduce your fatigue. Talk to your doctor about your fatigue and whether steroids or other medications might help.
The bottom line
The inflammation you have with rheumatoid arthritis can cause fatigue as well as joint swelling and pain. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with exercise, a healthy diet and good sleep can help keep this fatigue to a minimum.
Need help managing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?
Schedule an appointment with a rheumatologist.