Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a life-long health condition that affects more than a million adults in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2007). The autoimmune disease flares at times and can go into remission in many patients, but there is no cure.
The chronic pain, limited range of motion and disfigurement that comes with RA can be discouraging and depressing. If you're living with rheumatoid arthritis, you'll benefit from a reliable support system to help you put together a treatment plan and cope with the frustrations and setbacks associated with any type of chronic illness.
Managing Your Life With RA
Rheumatoid arthritis is characterized by not only joint pain and stiffness, impaired range of motion, and swelling, but also by broader, systemic symptoms. As your immune system attacks the soft tissues that line your joints, you may also feel tired, feverish, and achy—as if you have the flu—during a flare-up.
Feeling sick more than you feel well can interfere significantly with your family and work life. Putting some management tools into place can help you cope when your RA intensifies.
Medications can include corticosteroids, non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and biologic agents to reduce inflammation and slow the progression of the disease. Discuss drug options with your doctor and play an active role in decision-making around your condition. You are the only one who knows how bad you feel. Let your doctor know so together you can develop a management plan.
Learn to Say No
Busy adults juggle work, home, and family obligations and sometimes don't know when to graciously refuse a volunteer position or carpool run. RA can sap you of your strength at times, requiring more energy than you've got to finish everything on your daily checklist. Take a step back, get some rest, and let someone else pick up the kids next week.
Working out might be the last thing you want to do when your joints and muscles hurt. However, according to the Arthritis Foundation, moderate exercise can improve your range of motion and flexibility (Arthritis Foundation, 2012). Take a walk around the block or attack a punching bag to get an aerobic and weight-bearing workout.
Maintain a healthy weight to put less pressure on your joints and to reduce your risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. Following a varied diet, rich in produce and foods, such as fish, that contain omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation.
Depression and mood swings are common among people who have chronic illnesses. You may feel hopeless when your RA symptoms are at their worst, but feel more encouraged when you are in remission. A strong support system can help you navigate the emotional side of rheumatoid arthritis.
Support can come in the form of a trusted friend or family member, or an organization of people that experience similar symptoms. The purpose of a support group is to share experiences and learn coping techniques for the obstacles you face from RA. Your doctor can alert you to support groups in your area. Choose the type of organization that feels most comfortable to you:
- closed groups: by invitation or pre-registration only
- peer groups: led by someone like you, who is affected by RA
- group therapy: led by a mental health professional
- online support: chat groups for people who have RA or other chronic diseases
Each person's experience at a support group is different. It's okay if you decide that you are not comfortable in a formal group setting. Try to secure support in another form to avoid feeling isolated and alone.
Don't Let RA Define You
You may have rheumatoid arthritis for life, but that doesn't mean it has you. Don't let the label of RA or its challenges become so all-encompassing that it defines who you are as a person.
Maryann Roth, a retired school psychologist from Maine, lives with joint pain on a daily basis. Roth explains her approach to coping with a chronic condition: "to see the disease as a 'being' separate from me—as an intruder whom I can choose to fight against through lifestyle choices and medical treatment, and who does not define who I am. I am a person with arthritis, not arthritic!"
With proper emotional and medical support, living a life with RA can be a long, healthy and happy journey.