Affecting over 1.3 million Americans, rheumatoid arthritis is the most common type of autoimmune arthritis. It has long been considered one of the most debilitating autoimmune diseases, striking fear into patients.
While there is still much to learn about this chronic condition and no current cure, researchers are learning more every day about causes and effective courses of treatment. Even though your RA diagnosis might seem scary, with the right support and self-care you can manage symptoms and lead a full and happy life.
For many RA patients, and early diagnosis and intervention can help curb symptoms before they get too severe and also minimize overall joint damage. Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can include the following:
- Ongoing joint pain (lasting longer than a few weeks)
- Morning stiffness that doesn’t work out after about a half hour
- Joint pain on both sides of the body
- Joint redness
If you experience any of these symptoms for an extended period of time, you should see a doctor immediately. The earlier a diagnosis is made, the sooner you can find relief.
If you receive a positive RA diagnosis, it is important that you find a rheumatologist that you feel comfortable with. This type of specialist will first confirm your diagnosis, making sure you don’t have another disease that mimics RA symptoms, then provide ongoing treatment and develop a course of action that is tailored to your specific needs. RA presents differently in each patient and a good rheumatologist will help you to understand available medications along with their side effects as well as advise you regarding lifestyle choices that can help alleviate symptoms.
Beyond taking medication, there are steps that you can take to manage symptoms and live your best life. It is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle as part of your plan.
Much of the pain and stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis is caused by inflammation of the joints. For a number of RA sufferers, an anti-inflammatory diet helps to manage this. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to fight inflammation, so patients should include cold-water fish like trout, salmon, tuna, and herring in their diets. The natural fiber found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can also play a role. Olive oil is also an ally in combating inflammation, containing a compound that can block the enzymes that cause inflammation.
On the contrary, there are foods that should be avoided. Meats grilled or fried at high temperatures can increase compounds in the blood associated with inflammation. Omega-6 fatty acids are also linked. These are found in processed foods as well as in corn, sunflower, soybean, and safflower oils. For some alliums like onions and garlic can negatively impact inflammation. Trans fats should be avoided completely.
In general, it is a good idea for RA patients to eat a well-balanced diet stocked with fresh, unprocessed foods. Some experts recommend following the Mediterranean Diet, as it is full of the kinds of anti-inflammatory foods mentioned above.
While it may seem counterintuitive to exercise while dealing with inflamed joints, an active lifestyle plays an important role in managing symptoms. Low-impact activities like walking, swimming, and cycling can improve heart function, help manage weight, and provide energy without putting too much strain on the joints. If a flare-up makes these activities too taxing, gentle stretching can help the pain.
Chronic conditions can take their toll. It is estimated that up to 40% of people with rheumatoid arthritis experience symptoms of depression. Unfortunately, poor mental health can make RA even worse. Patients with depression are shown to have more significant pain and can develop other health problems. Depression also makes a person less likely to seek treatment or maintain the healthy diet and exercise habits needed to manage symptoms.
For this reason, it is vital that you seek help if symptoms of depression arise. These can include, but aren’t limited to, fatigue, insomnia, feelings of worthlessness, changes in appetite, and loss of interest in activities that were once interested in. A therapist can help you work through these feelings and assist you as you fight depression, whether is with acupuncture, psychotherapy, or medication. There are also a number of support groups available to RA patients. Often finding a community who understands what you are going through can be incredibly helpful.
A rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis is not the end, far from it. A great number of RA patients go on to lead full and happy lives. It is just a matter of finding and committing to a course of treatment that will meet your specific needs.