If you’re living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the onset of new symptoms can come as the worst kind of surprise. When faced with new symptoms, it’s not uncommon to feel like you’re out of control of your own health.
Even more confusing is the fact that up to 42 percent of Americans with RA experience remission periods after their initial treatments. This sometimes leads people to falsely believe that their RA can be cured. When inevitable flare-ups occur, a lot of people with RA feel disappointed.
It’s true that RA is very unpredictable, but the good news is there are ways to monitor your RA and keep it in check.
Are your RA symptoms getting worse?
If you think your RA symptoms may be worsening, it’s time to put your detective hat on. Think about your everyday life. What has changed since you’ve started to feel as though your RA is acting up? Sometimes there’s a clue that can help you find out what’s causing a flare-up. Potential factors might include:
- a flu
- new foods
- pregnancy or new motherhood
- the new presence of rheumatoid factor (RF) in your blood
- a family history of aggressive RA
Determine if you have progressive RA
Progressive rheumatoid arthritis (PRA) is a more aggressive form of the disease. Treatment for PRA is different from the milder version. But determining if you have PRA can be tricky. There are specific signs to look for. Be sure to share any changes with your doctor so they can help determine if you have the more aggressive form of RA.
Here are the signs to keep an eye on:
- You’re having more flare-ups, or the active stages of RA are becoming more frequent and are lasting longer.
- You’re experiencing extreme inflammation of the tissue around the joints. This may be damaging the cartilage and the bone.
- You’re experiencing a marked decrease in mobility and muscle strength, and in some cases, you have no mobility at all.
- You’re experiencing increased pain and swelling in new joints and muscles that were previously unaffected.
- You’re developing rheumatoid nodules on your joints.
- Your blood tests are showing higher levels of RF.
Is it time to get a second opinion?
It’s true that RA can worsen on its own. But if you’re managing your medications, stress, sleep patterns, and overall routine, and are still experiencing worsening RA symptoms, it’s possible that you need to think about a change. The goal of prescribed RA treatments is “clinical remission.” This means you feel well enough that you don’t have to think about your RA symptoms throughout the day.
If it seems that the medication prescribed by your doctor is becoming less effective for treating your symptoms, and you feel you’ve exhausted all options, it may be time to get a second opinion. Keep in mind that you should be seeing a rheumatologist or a rheumatoid arthritis specialist, not just a general practice doctor.
10 key steps to managing your RA
Living with RA is all about managing the symptoms. The following list can help you do just that:
- Track your triggers. Write down in a journal specific details about your habits, so you can track what stressors, foods, or activities you think might be causing your RA symptoms to flare.
- Find the right doctor for you. RA is a lifelong condition, and so it’s important to find a specialist who you’re comfortable with and trust.
- Change your medication. If your medication is not working for you, talk to your doctor about making a change.
- Always speak up. If you notice something feels off about your treatment or your RA symptoms, don’t wait to tell your doctor.
- Customize a treatment plan. RA is unique in that no one is 100 percent sure why it develops, and no two people experience RA in the same way. Work on a plan that speaks to your condition and its needs.
- Make exercise a priority. This can be challenging when your RA flares up. But it’s important to keep your body moving and the blood flowing through your joints and muscles.
- Try physiotherapy. If mobility is becoming an issue, it might be time to find a physiotherapist who can help you get moving.
- Give yourself a break. You didn’t cause RA to happen and are doing your best to manage it.
- Eat a well-balanced diet. This includes a consistent intake of leafy greens, fruit, whole grains, and low-fat proteins.
10. If it’s an option for you, consider having more sex. Some studies suggest that an active sexual life improves self-esteem, and helps to keep those joints and muscles from stiffening.
RA symptoms can come and go. However, the key to living with RA is to advocate for your health. Be an active participant in your treatment. It’s also important to take time to relax, and do all that you can to enjoy pain-free days. Having a great team beside you that includes your doctor, family, and friends will help you meet these goals.