Feeling foggy? Be kind to yourself as you learn to manage this frustrating RA symptom.

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Have you ever left your car keys in the fridge or been so forgetful that you didn’t pick your kid up from school?

I’ve been there.

Everyone experiences brain fog, or a “brain fart,” at some point in their lives.

Maybe they’re overwhelmed or feeling ill, it’s the first thing in the morning, or something has distracted them. With so much going on in our lives, it’s easy to become forgetful.

My experience with brain fog, also known as cog fog but properly known as cognitive dysfunction, is caused by my rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Unfortunately, it’s common in people with RA, and it was one of the trickiest symptoms to learn to live with. It just goes to show that RA is so much more than “just joint pain.”

Brain fog can leave me embarrassed and infuriated with myself. It has triggered bouts of depression and caused me a lot of anxiety at really inconvenient times.

I’m often questioning my every move:

Have I forgotten something?

Did I just make sense?

Did I make a mistake?

Do they think I’m drunk or high?

How do I explain this to someone without them thinking I am stupid?

Brain fog caused by rheumatoid arthritis can feel all-consuming. It often plays out in these ways:

  • hazy thoughts, like my head is swimming in a fog
  • poor memory
  • slurring or mispronouncing words
  • feeling extremely tired
  • finding it hard to comprehend or say words, even ones we say or hear often
  • difficulty focusing

While I initially had a hard time understanding the link between RA and brain fog, I’ve slowly found some trends.

I’ve narrowed this down to a list of eight causes of brain fog:

Joint soreness and stiffness

Inflammation is a reliable culprit for increased cognitive dysfunction.

When my rheumatoid arthritis is flaring, my memory gets hazier, my words fumble, and I have a hard time concentrating on tasks.

If there is higher inflammation occurring, there will be greater chances of cognitive dysfunction.

Overdoing it

As a single mom tackling parenting and a chronic illness at the same time, life gets busy more often than I’d like. I often have to ask myself if I’m overdoing it.

Overdoing my daily activities is a big indicator I’ll be experiencing heightened brain fog very soon.

Medications

My medications — or a need for my medications — often causes fumbling with words and forgetfulness.

Cog fog soars when there’s more inflammation and also soars when my medications leave me in a hungover state.

I notice that in the days before and after my infusion, I’m the most groggy and confused.

For some people with RA, this can be a sign that your infusion timing or dose may need to be adjusted.

Poor sleep

Sleep no doubt has a massive effect on how I’m able to function day to day. Gone are the days I could be up late at a party or a concert and be productive the next day.

If I don’t get my beauty sleep, chances are my day isn’t going to go very smoothly.

Cannabis

Many people living with arthritis use medical cannabis in some way.

Anyone using cannabis can tell you how forgetful the drug can make you, especially if you smoke an indica that leaves you in the couch.

Stress, anxiety, and depression

How I’m feeling has a lot to do with how my cognitive dysfunction goes.

Not only does my lowered mood leave me forgetful, but it can be hard to focus on what I need to do or organize my thoughts.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies

Unfortunately, I learned the very hard way that certain vitamin deficiencies can cause brain fog.

Some common deficiencies with RA include low iron, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.

Flare-up or infection

Take note how frequent your cog fog is.

When symptoms like cognitive dysfunction, depression, or fatigue start raging, it could be a sign that you’re in an RA flare-up.

If you also have other signs like fever, increased heart rate, or redness of the skin, it could be a sign of infection.

In either case, talk with your doctor about the best way to move forward.

It took time for me to figure out how to navigate brain fog.

After many missed appointments, late assignments and embarrassing moments, I’ve developed some strategies that make life a little easier with rheumatoid arthritis.

These include:

Take notes

I can’t stress how important it is to write everything down. I don’t trust myself to remember it unless I make a note.

Track your health and physical activity

Tracking your activity and symptoms has a lot of benefits.

When dealing with brain fog, you can catch any patterns or warning signs of a possible oncoming flare or recognize if you’re overexerting yourself, causing forgetfulness.

Communicate with others

Communication is so important when living with a chronic illness. I remind others that I’m forgetful and to not take it to heart.

If someone isn’t going to be supportive or understanding of my illness, then I typically avoid them the best I can.

Schedule appointments at consistent times

I keep my appointments scheduled for regular days and times so I can remember when they are and make it easier to plan my life around them.

For example, I always keep my chiropractor appointments at 1 p.m. on Fridays and my infusions at 10 a.m. on the days they’re available to me.

Hydrate and eat well

Dehydration can cause a significant amount of cog fog. To stay sharp and less creaky, I must stay hydrated.

Avoiding foods that increase inflammation or leave me sluggish is another pro tip for avoiding cog fog.

I regularly take omega-3 supplements to support my brain health and joints.

If possible, get fresh air and sunlight

Sitting around inside all day may sound relaxing, but it’s not actually all that great for you. We all need fresh air and vitamin D from the sun.

Winter is a time when my cognitive dysfunction is usually higher, no doubt because I’m usually less active and don’t spend as much time outdoors.

Make time for regular exercise

For the first 2 week after starting my regular exercise routine, I noticed higher fatigue and cog fog.

However, as my body became stronger, this eased up. Now, regular exercise helps keep me sharp.

Make a point to rest and relax

Sometimes, there are tasks that are best left to do after you’ve had some rest. The best thing you can do for your cog fog is rest.

Cognitive dysfunction is often a sign for me to slow down and take a moment for my battery to recharge.

If you’ve been feeling like you’re losing your mind lately and can’t remember anything, know that it isn’t your fault and there are things you can do to calm it.

It doesn’t go away completely, so when it does happen, I find it best to laugh and be kind to myself.


Eileen Davidson is a rheumatoid arthritis patient advocate from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She’s an ambassador for the Arthritis Society, an Arthritis Research Canada arthritis patient advisory board member, a member of the Doctors of BC Shared Care Chronic Pain Advisory Committee, and a patient engagement research ambassador for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research — Institute for Musculoskeletal Health and Arthritis. She’s a regular contributor to Creaky Joints and runs her personal blog, Chronic Eileen. When she’s not advocating or busy being a single mother to her young son, Jacob, she can be found exercising, painting, or cooking.