Understanding RA

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is one of many types of arthritis. It’s the most common type of autoimmune arthritis. RA goes after the body’s joints. It most commonly affects the wrists and joints of the hand, such as the knuckles. This can cause issues with how well you move or use your hands, and it can cause varying degrees of pain and fatigue.

The condition affects every person differently. Some people experience more severe symptoms than others. According to Marcy O’Koon Moss, senior director of consumer health for the Arthritis Foundation, the most common complaint from people with RA is pain.

“An Arthritis Foundation survey in 2011 found that each month people with RA experience pain an average of 12 out of 30 days, 40 percent of the time,” she says. “Relief of pain is what they most want.”

Because of these symptoms, RA can create various challenges. Whether it’s chronic pain or constant fatigue, it can take a toll on people with even the strongest of spirits. Here are tips on how to live well with RA from people who have lived through it.

When Amanda John, 36, from Charlotte, North Carolina, was diagnosed with RA nine years ago, she lived a very active lifestyle. Running, dancing, and anything that got her moving was a win in her book. After RA entered her life, she had to make concessions. Some of these hit her hard, but she’s learned that the way she talks to herself can help or hinder day-to-day life.

“Take it easy on yourself,” she says. “When I have unexpected challenges due to RA, it can be very emotional and I may beat myself up internally.” Beating yourself up because “it’s one more thing you don’t get to do” won’t make your symptoms go away. Turning around your mindset may just help to get you through a better tomorrow.

“Know that you won’t feel that way forever,” John says. “You’ll probably feel a lot better if you can change that inner voice to say ‘Today, this is hard, but that is just today.’”

“I’ve been to several counselors who specialize in chronic illness,” John says, referring to another factor that’s been a huge help to her living well with RA. “Money well spent!”

It’s important that you reach out to someone you trust, whether that’s a therapist, a friend, or your family members.

Pain can be a very isolating symptom, and it may take effort to reach out. Once you do, you may be surprised how just speaking up can do wonders for your outlook.

“Support from others was huge, especially as I hid my RA at first,” says John. “Once I let people in on the diagnosis, I actually physically felt better because I wasn’t so stressed anymore.”

This one is especially for the newly diagnosed, who may be feeling helpless about a condition they know very little about. John says that educating herself about RA helped her make the best decisions about her medical care and feel better about her situation.

“For me, knowing the whats and whys of my doctor’s recommendations made me feel better and more in control and on top of things,” she says.

For April Wells, 50, in Cleveland, Ohio, the book Rheumatoid Arthritis the First Year was most helpful when she was first diagnosed six years ago.

The Arthritis Foundation’s website is another great resource, and a favorite for Michelle Grech, 42. Grech is the president of sports and entertainment marketing firm MELT, LLC. She has been dealing with RA for the past 15 years.

“Start reading up on the disease and meet people who face similar challenges,” she says. “It’s particularly important to understand that RA affects people of all ages and that you can maintain a healthy, active lifestyle with RA.”

Check out: Rheumatoid arthritis by the numbers: Facts, statistics, and you »

You may want to push yourself and prove that your will is stronger than your RA. Although that can be OK, it’s also important to take a break sometimes and get extra rest when needed.

“Don’t overschedule yourself on the weekends so that you’ll have downtime to get your energy back,” Grech says.

Sometimes it’s the little things that can add up to big rewards. In this case, that means diet, exercise, and sleep.

“Pay close attention to your diet and exercise and try to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, if not more,” advises Grech. “If your body is trying to tell you to slow down, listen and then get back to what you need to do.”

When fatigue or aching makes it difficult to get out of bed or hit the trail, try low-impact exercises. Stretching and yoga are two of Grech’s go-to exercises that make a huge difference in getting her joints and muscles warmed up and providing extra energy.

For a personalized exercise plan that’s matched to the specifics of your RA and your current fitness level, check out the Arthritis Foundation’s Your Exercise Solution.

If you haven’t yet, find a good rheumatologist, or doctor who specializes in joint diseases. Then, foster that relationship. A doctor who is available, takes time to answer questions, and gives you support is invaluable.

“The best help to me when I was first diagnosed with RA was my rheumatologist, who truly spent quality time with me answering questions, working with me to find answers, and determining the best course of treatment,” Grech says.

To maintain your quality of life, don’t let any diagnosis keep you from doing what you love. Adapt where necessary.

Wells, who used to run races and bike, had to rethink her love of the outdoors after RA. After two decades away from these outdoor activities, she went back to what made her heart race and simply adapted to her new normal. In this case, that meant working up to distances gradually and having a slower (but not slow) pace when racing.

She’s learned that it’s not the pace that matters most, it’s the memories. She says she does these things “for the experience of being out in the weather and enjoying the scenery that I pass.” Find what you love and find ways of adapting your new reality to what you love.

Keep reading: Talking to your doctor about rheumatoid arthritis »