You can't cure a chronic condition, but you can manage it with healthy lifestyle changes and by working with your doctor.
Living with a chronic condition like arthritis presents unique challenges that start the day you receive the diagnosis. What do you do now? How could your body betray you this way? Will the rest of your life be spent in pain and discomfort? Can you still enjoy your favorite activities?
The good news is that, with a bit of research – and a couple of lifestyle changes – arthritis is typically very manageable.
What to do after receiving an arthritis diagnosis
One of the scariest parts of any medical diagnosis is fear of the unknown. This is why knowledge is so powerful. The more you know, the less frightened you'll feel about what the future holds now that you have a chronic condition.
The first step, of course, is talking to your doctor. There are dozens of types of arthritis, the most common being osteoarthritis. To better understand your treatment options and what to expect in the future, it's important to know which type of arthritis you have.
Your healthcare provider should provide reading materials that explain your condition and what to expect going forward. But it's never a bad idea to do your own research, as long as you rely on trustworthy sites like the Arthritis Foundation. (In general, you should focus your research efforts on .org and .gov sites when looking for reliable, fact-based information about any health condition.)
The foundation's About Arthritis page is a great place to start. You'll learn more about the different types of arthritis, ways to manage your condition, treatment options, and healthy lifestyle changes you can make to improve mobility and relieve symptoms. You'll also find research-based information on different types of arthritis medication. Your healthcare provider and insurance company can help you determine whether your Medicare Part D plan will cover different arthritis medications.
How to manage arthritis symptoms
The most common arthritis symptoms are:
- Pain, which may be constant, localized to a particular joint or body part, or come and go depending on whether you're at rest or moving.
- Swelling of the skin may occur around the affected joint, leaving it warm to the touch, red, and puffy. (See a doctor if swelling lasts for 3 or more days or occurs more than three times per month.)
- Stiffness typically occurs when you first wake or after remaining seated for too long, such as when driving a car or sitting at your desk.
- Difficulty moving is also a common arthritis symptom. Painful or stiff joints may make it hard to rise from a seated position or get out of bed.
Your doctor can provide a personalized treatment plan for managing your arthritis symptoms. The following provides good general advice.
Be physically active
Regular exercise helps strengthen the muscles surrounding your joints. It also helps improve mobility, get more restful sleep, and maintain a healthy weight, which relieves pressure on your joints.
Before starting an exercise program, talk to your doctor to be sure you ramp up safely. Too much, too soon could set you back or cause an injury. If your doctor approves, standard activity guidelines ask for 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise (that's 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week). This could include:
- Low-impact aerobics
Strength training is another good choice, if your doctor approves.
Not all physical activity is "good" physical activity, particularly when you have arthritis. High-impact, repetitive activities like running, jumping, and tennis may damage joints.
Follow a healthy diet
The Arthritis Foundation recommends a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and fish. Avoid processed foods and saturated fats, as these may lead to weight gain and secondary conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
A good option is the Mediterranean diet, which has been proven to lower blood pressure, help maintain a healthy weight, and reduce inflammation – all good things for people who have arthritis. Avoid inflammatory products like:
- Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (and most other sugars found in processed foods)
- Artificial trans fats like margarine and vegetable shortening, as well as foods cooked in them, such as French fries and packaged snacks
- Refined carbohydrates like white bread, candy, pasta, and pastries
- Processed meats, including bacon, sausage, smoked meats, and ham
- Excessive alcohol consumption (more than 1 drink per day for women, 1-2 per day for men)
- Foods with a high salt content
In addition to avoiding inflammatory foods, you can manage your arthritis symptoms by eating anti-inflammatory foods.
- Leafy greens, including collards, kale, and spinach
- Fatty fish, such as tuna, salmon, sardines, and mackerel
- Olive oil
- Colorful fruits like blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and oranges
Your goal is to eat at least seven servings of fruits and vegetables every day. And by following an anti-inflammatory diet, you'll lower your risk for a host of chronic conditions, including heart disease and diabetes.
Take time for self-care
When living with a chronic condition, some days are worse than others. Pay attention to your body and your feelings. If you need help, reach out to family and friends. Take frequent breaks if you tire more easily or the pain is a little worse than usual.
There are a number of relaxation techniques that can help reduce both the physical and mental symptoms you're experiencing. Try any – or all – of the following:
- Deep breathing exercises
- Journal writing
- Massage therapy
- Time in nature
- Warm bath
You may also want to look into cognitive behavioral therapy. This powerful tool combines talk therapy and behavior modification to help patients replace negative, destructive patterns with healthier habits. This includes negative thoughts you may be having about your diagnosis. Unlike traditional talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy typically only lasts for a few months.
Medications to help manage arthritis symptoms
Over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin and ibuprofen work well to manage pain and inflammation. Ask your doctor for recommendations, though. You don't want any over-the-counter medications to counteract prescriptions.
It's also a good idea to ask your healthcare provider about supplements and ointments. Too many supplements offer little therapeutic value so getting a professional's advice ensures you don't waste money on ineffective supplements.
Speaking of costs, Original Medicare doesn't cover prescription medications. And Medicare Part D, though it helps pay for prescriptions, does not help pay for over-the-counter medications. If you have a Medicare Advantage Prescription Drug plan, though, it may include over-the-counter benefits. Check with your plan provider to be sure.
How Medicare can help if you have arthritis
Medicare Part B is the medical insurance part of Original Medicare (the other half is Part A, hospital insurance). In addition to covering medically necessary visits with your healthcare provider, one of your Part B benefits is chronic care management services. The program is available if you have two or more chronic conditions that your doctor estimates will last 12 months or more.
Chronic care management services involves you and your medical provider developing a comprehensive care plan that addresses your unique healthcare needs, including:
- A list of your health conditions and providers/specialists
- Health goals
- Community services that could assist in managing your conditions
- Educational information to help you understand your options and take an active role in your healthcare
There is a monthly fee for chronic care management services. In addition, the Part B deductible and 20% co-insurance apply. If you have a Medigap plan, it may help cover some of these costs. If you have Medicare Advantage, check with your plan provider regarding costs.
To get started, just ask your doctor.
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