Treating Arthritis

What are the Goals of Treatment?

The goals of arthritis treatment are to:
  • Reduce pain and stiffness
  • Keep or increase movement

How is Arthritis Treated?

Arthritis is treated in the following ways:
  • Medications
  • Heat
  • Cold
  • Rest
  • Exercise
  • Joint protection


Medications are given to decrease pain and inflammation. If inflammation is not decreased, arthritis can damage the joint. Arthritis medications include:
  • Aspirin
  • Naprosyn
  • Ibuprofen
  • Feldene
  • Disalcid
  • Tylenol

Take these medications ONLY after consulting your doctor. These medications can bother your stomach, so take them with food.

Some other medications that may be used include:
  • Methotrexate
  • Gold injections


Heat helps relieve joint stiffness, muscle spasms, and pain. It relaxes tense muscles and increases blood flow.
Good sources of heat include:
  • Moist heating pads
  • Warm showers or baths
  • Moist towels heated in a microwave
  • Be careful of burning your skin, especially if you have experienced a loss of feeling (for example, from diabetes or stroke).


Cold is best for red, hot, or swollen joints. It helps decrease swelling and pain. It relaxes tense muscles and has a numbing effect.
Good sources of cold include:
  • an icepack wrapped in a damp towel
  • bag of frozen peas
  • a ZipLoc bag filled with ice cubes and then wrapped in a damp towel

Heat versus Cold

Try both and see if heat or cold lessens the pain. Cold may be best for a flare-up of hot and swollen joints.


Rest helps you to do the following:
  • Fight fatigue. Pain and inflammation of arthritis lower energy and cause fatigue. Plan a daily rest period, whether you are tired or not. Rest gives your body time to refuel. It is like medication or therapy. Many short rest breaks (5 to 10 minutes) help to balance rest and activity and can help give your body the energy it needs to get through the activity and the day.
  • Reduce pain and stress. When your muscles are tired, more stress is put on the joints. This may cause more pain and damage to the joints. Joint pain from overdoing it during the day may not show up until night.


Exercise helps your:
  • Range of motion
  • Muscle strength
  • Joints
    • preserves normal movement
    • prevents deformities by decreasing tightness

Guidelines for Exercise

  • A therapist can set up the best exercise program.
  • Check with the doctor before beginning any exercise program.
  • Exercise at least once or twice a day.
  • Set a regular time every day. Slowly increase activity.

Types of Exercise

  • Range-of-motion (flexibility) exercises. Range-of-motion exercises are exercises or movements of joints and muscles. These exercises may: -relieve stiffness -relax muscles -increase blood flow -improve muscle balance and posture
  • Strengthening exercises. Isometric strengthening is tightening the muscle without moving the joint, Isometric exercises help increase:
    • muscle strength
    • joint support
    • ability to move around
  • Other exercises. Swimming is one of the best exercises for arthritis. The water reduces the strain of exercising. Water exercise helps with muscle strengthening and flexibility. Swimming can also be aerobic.

Helpful suggestions

Do not substitute home activities for regular exercise.
  • Exercise on good days AND bad days.
  • Lower the number and force of exercises during periods of increased pain or swelling.
  • Do not use exercise weights on sore joints.
  • Balance periods of exercise with periods of rest.
  • During exercises some soreness (not pain) may be felt. If the increased soreness continues 1 to 2 hours after exercise, you have exercised too much. Exercise less if that happens.
  • You are doing too much or not doing it right it causes:
    • extreme fatigue
    • joint pain (that is different than your "normal" arthritis joint pain) that lasts longer than one

Other exercises

Swimming is one of the best exercises for arthritis. The water reduces the strain of exercising. Water exercise helps with muscle strengthening and flexibility. Swimming can also be aerobic.
RESPECT PAIN! Use the 2-hour pain rule. If pain is severe for more than 2 hours after any exercise, you have exercised too much.

Joint Protection

Protecting the joints means decreasing the wear and tear on a joint. Decreasing wear and tear will help protect the joint from more harm and deformity. To protect joints, decrease the following:
  • Weight lifted by the joint
  • Time the joint is used
  • Repeating movements
Follow these rules to protect your joints:
  • Avoid long periods in the same position.
  • Decrease stress on joints by keeping good posture.
  • Keep joints properly lined up (alignment).
  • Remove weight from joint when very painful.
  • Avoid overuse during flare-ups.
  • Change activities to decrease joint stress.
  • Do range-of-motion exercises.
  • Do strengthening exercises.

Use Your Joints Wisely and Save Your Energy

Using your joints wisely means doing everyday tasks in ways that reduce the stress on painful joints. Saving your energy means, "listening" to your body for signals that it needs to rest. It also means learning to pace yourself. Following are guidelines for using your joints wisely and for saving your energy:
  • Use proper movement techniques for bending, lifting, reaching, sitting, and standing.
  • Be aware of your body position. Avoid activities that involve a tight grip or that put too much pressure on your fingers. Use self-help devices, such as jar openers, reach extenders, zipper pulls, and buttoning aids. These aids put less stress on your joints and make difficult tasks easier.
  • Use your largest and strongest joints and muscles. For example, if arthritis doesn't affect your shoulder or neck, try using a shoulder bag, backpack, or fanny pack to carry items instead of a tote bag, briefcase, or purse, all of which must be handheld. This protects painful elbow, wrist, and finger joints. When you lift or carry objects, use both arms. This prevents you from placing too much stress on one joint or one area of your body.
  • Avoid holding one position for a long time. Move or change positions often. Keeping joints in the same position may cause joint stiffness and pain.
  • Balance activity with rest. Learn to understand our body's signals that you're getting tired. Take breaks when you need them. Don't wait for the physical signals of pain before you rest. Plan your schedule to alternate activity with rest-even when you are feeling well.
  • Respect pain. If you have pain that lasts for two hours or more after completing an activity or exercise, than you've done too much. Next time do a little less or try exerting less effort.
  • Simplify your work. Plan ahead, organize, and create shortcuts. Use labor-saving devices, such as an electric can opener or electric garage door opener, that require less energy on your part and place less stress on your joints.
  • Ask for help when you need it. Family and friends would rather help you than have you become too tired or ill from doing too much. You may wish to consult a physical or occupational therapist who may be able to suggest useful assistive aids.
  • Contact your local Arthritis Foundation office for more specific tips on wise joint use.