Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has a reputation for causing serious joint pain, but RA fatigue is another symptom that can be just as debilitating as the pain.
“Fatigue is a frequent symptom in rheumatoid arthritis,” Naomi Schlesinger, M.D., chief of the Division of Rheumatology at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells SELF. With rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in your body and causes inflammation that results in painful, swollen joints. The reason for RA fatigue isn’t clear, but some experts theorize it’s the chronic inflammation itself that may cause lethargy, according to Richard Chou, M.D., a senior rheumatologist at the University at Buffalo. And the bodily pain that comes with rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t help either, he explains. “The pain is with you, often 24/7, and that will wear you out,” Dr. Chou tells SELF.
People with rheumatoid arthritis are also more prone to experience depression, anemia (a condition where you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry the right amount of oxygen to your body’s tissues), and sleeping problems—and all of those factors can wipe you out, too, Dr. Schlesinger says.
Basically, there’s a lot about rheumatoid arthritis that can affect your energy levels and make it difficult to get through an entire day of work or to meet a friend at the park. Unfortunately, managing RA fatigue isn’t as simple as drinking a cup of coffee, so we asked people with rheumatoid arthritis about how they deal with it. Hopefully, some of their strategies can help you make particularly tiring days more bearable.
1. Rest before and after particularly active days whenever possible.
It’s been 12 years since Elisa C., 55, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and making sure she has plenty of downtime before and after busy days is one of the habits that have helped her most in that time.
“If I’m going to have a fun day with my husband at the park, I know to plan several days for that,” she tells SELF. For her, that can mean doing food prep in advance and freezing meals so that she doesn’t use up too much energy cooking the day before her planned activity. She also plans on having a rest day “filled with naps and just taking it easy,” after her activity day, Elisa says.
Although you can’t always anticipate every single event that pops up, this can be helpful to try whenever you make plans in advance. Or you can try to modify this by scheduling a quick 20-minute nap or fitting in a few rest breaks whenever possible in the days after a super hectic time.
2. Share your experiences with family and friends if you feel comfortable doing so.
When she really isn’t up to meeting friends or family, Elisa prioritizes her health over social engagements and virtual events instead of trying to push through the fatigue. She finds that people are more understanding when she explains why she needs to cancel plans at the last minute. “I used to try to not talk about my rheumatoid arthritis very much and just come up with some reason that I needed to go home or to cut plans short,” she explains. But Elisa says constantly coming up with excuses was exhausting, too. Now, she’s just honest. “I try to take the approach that I do a disservice to those around me when I don’t want to share my journey,” she says. “I’m OK with saying, ‘I know it’s only 10:30 in the morning, but I’ve got to shower and lie down for an hour,’” Elisa says.
3. Try to keep a reserve of meals and supplies that you can use on days when you need extra rest.
Mariah L., 38, is a mom of three, and she says juggling the demands of motherhood and her rheumatoid arthritis fatigue can be tough. She’s found that meal prepping and reserving special toys that keep her kids entertained for longer give her more time to rest on particularly tiring things.