Stepping into a warm shower is a pleasant experience for almost everyone, but if you have rheumatoid arthritis, this daily routine can be part of your treatment.
“Usually patients who have rheumatoid arthritis will say, ‘If I wake up in the morning and I’m stiff, I take a hot shower, and the warm water from the shower will help to loosen my joints and make them feel better,’” says Ashira Blazer, MD, a rheumatologist at NYU Langone Medical Center.
It’s not just in your head: The warm water really does help. It’s coined “warm water therapy” by the Arthritis Foundation (AF), and it plays a big role in managing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
How Warm Water Helps Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain
Most people associate arthritis pain with aging joints, but RA is different. It’s an autoimmune disease in which the immune system turns against the body and attacks the joints. Learn more about what rheumatoid arthritis is here.
Inside the joints, you have something called synovial fluid. (This is what makes the popping sound when you crack your knuckles.) The synovial fluid “helps protect and lubricate the joints,” says Dr. Blazer. This way, your bones don’t grind together when you bend your elbows, knees, and fingers.
However, if you have RA, this synovial sac can become a site of pain-causing inflammation. The synovial fluid “starts to get filled with inflammatory cells and inflammatory proteins,” says Dr. Blazer. “If you’re not moving your joints, those inflammatory proteins sort of settle out.”
To cut down on the inflammation, you basically need to “churn” the synovial fluid that has become thickened with inflammation.
Warm water gets blood flow moving throughout stiffened muscles and joints, according to the Arthritis Foundation. This helps loosen up the synovial fluid and get the joints moving more comfortably, which in turn helps shake out the inflammation.
Tips for Using Warm Water Therapy for RA Pain
Warm water is just one part of the equation for loosening up joints in the morning. Since you need to “churn” the synovial fluid to decrease inflammation, adding movement to your routine may reduce joint pain and stiffness in the morning.
That’s why many patients say that the more they use their joints in the morning, the better they feel, according to Dr. Blazer. The movement helps cut down on the presence of inflammatory cells in the synovial sac.
Some patients find it beneficial to combine the two tasks by swimming or doing other types of water aerobics. Not only is this a low-impact workout, but you may be able to find heated pools that can help soothe your joint pain. A study of the effectiveness of water exercises found that 87 percent of RA patients doing water exercises had fewer symptoms (compared to 47.5 percent of patients using land-based exercise).
If you don’t have time for a full workout, the Arthritis Foundation suggests doing some gentle stretches during a warm bath—emphasis on warm. Very hot water can be bad for both the heart and the skin, so warm water is best.
Need more tips for managing RA?