Exercise to Ease Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain
October 25, 2007—Exercising might be the last thing on the minds of people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, but a new study shows that it could be just what the doctor ordered to help the ease the symptoms of this debilitating disease.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body mistakenly attacks its own tissues. With this disease, the body attacks the lining of the joints, causing inflammation and permanent damage. It commonly starts in the hands, feet, and knees, causing pain and stiffness; as the disease progresses, joint deformities become visible. Depression is also common in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
The disease is two to three times more common in women than it is in men, leading some researchers to think that hormones might be partially to blame. Genetics and environmental factors are other possible causes; people with a relative who has the disease and those who have smoked for a number of years are at higher risk.
The new study aimed to determine if a low-impact aerobic exercise program might improve symptoms and increase strength in people with rheumatoid arthritis, and what factors would help people stick to an exercise routine.
The 12-week study involved 220 people with rheumatoid arthritis. They were assigned to one of three groups: an exercise class that met for one hour three times per week, a home-based exercise program using a videotape of the same routine used in the class, or a control group with no exercise instruction.
By the end of the trial, pain, fatigue, and depression significantly improved in people who took part in the exercise class compared with the control group. People who were less tired and more optimistic exercised more, as did people who thought that there were more benefits than barriers to exercising. Both exercise groups improved in strength and walk time (a measure of the number of seconds it takes to walk 50 feet).
“Our findings reinforce the need for healthcare providers to educate patients with rheumatoid arthritis about the many benefits of exercise, how to overcome barriers to exercise, and ways to manage fatigue,” said the researchers in Arthritis and Rheumatism. They explained, “Part of fatigue in patients with rheumatoid arthritis may be due to a deconditioned state and regular aerobic exercise may decrease the detrimental effects of fatigue.”
If you are living with rheumatoid arthritis, talk with your doctor or physical therapist about an exercise program that’s right for you. Avoid activities such as running or bouncing, as these can aggravate your symptoms. Many health clubs offer aquatics classes tailored to people with arthritis.
(Arthritis Rheum 2007;57:943–52)
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Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.
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