Rheumatoid Arthritis or RA it is an autoimmune condition, with autoimmune conditions the body’s own defences mistakenly attack healthy tissue. A normal immune system fights off infections, everything from the common cold to nasty stomach bugs. When someone develops an autoimmune condition, their body’s defenses attack their own joints and tissues. With RA the immune system usually attacks the lining of joints (the synovial lining), this causes inflammation. RA usually attacks both sides of the body equally and it tends to affect the small joints first. Many people first show symptoms in their hands and feet but RA can affect any joint.
RA is a systemic condition, it doesn’t just affect joints. A person’s whole system can be affected, this includes the respiratory and pulmonary systems (lungs & heart) and even the eyes.
According to the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society about 1% of the UK population has RA, that’s around 690,000 people. RA tends to affect more women than men and people usually develop it between the ages of 40 and 60. That said, RA can strike at any age.
Initial symptoms of RA include pain, swelling and redness around affected joints. Many people experience stiffness in their joints (especially in the mornings and after prolonged periods of sitting) and most people experience severe fatigue.
Soon after diagnosis many patients are started on medication to help prevent damage to their joints many patients also receive physiotherapy to maintain good strong supporting muscles. Splinting (especially for hands) can also help support inflamed joints and prevent deformity. Unfortunately this isn’t always enough. When damage becomes severe many patients need surgery to maintain function and minimise pain.
Along side these medical interventions there are things you can do at home to help look after your joints and manage your symptoms.
To really start successfully managing a long-term condition like RA it’s important to understand the Pro’s and Con’s of getting a diagnosis, this important step can help with acceptance.
Since many people with RA experience intense, chronic pain it’s important to have a variety of pain management strategies. Many of my top strategies can be used along side traditional pain killers and can be incorporated into daily life, non-medication-based strategies are also suitable for young people with RA who cannot take hard-core painkillers.
Learning to manage fatigue is also an important skill. The best strategy for many is pacing. By breaking your daily activities into smaller chunks it’s possible to minimise the time spent recovering from intense activities.
Pacing doesn’t just apply to work, it can also apply to fitness. Although it’s important to stay fit and healthy with any long-term condition it can be difficult to balance activity with energy so you could try an alternative approach to physiotherapy and an individualised approach to fitness. Everyone is different and it’s important to do things in a way that suits you.
Many people with RA struggle with mobility, for some this is a constant challenge but for others it’s only an issue during flare ups or post surgery. Either way it’s important to know that mobility aids can be used if you need them. It’s perfectly fine to use a wheelchair one day but not the next. You can keep a walking stick in your car but not take it shopping with you.
With any long-term condition it’s important to get good quality sleep but with the pain of RA this can be really challenging. Sleep Hygiene can help promote quality, restful sleep.
There is no cure for RA but with a multifaceted approach many people still can lead fairly active lives. If you’d like to know more NRAS is an information standard accredited charity working to support people with RA, their website is full of useful information.
If you’re on Facebook looking for support then Invisible Arthur is the page for you.
As with all of my advice, please check with your primary care provider before making any big lifestyle changes. Although my advice is evidence-based it’s written as a general guide not a specific medical plan.
I will be adding to this page periodically so please check back soon. Please feel free to ask questions or leave comments.