7 People Talk About How They Thrive With Rheumatoid Arthritis
Being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis can be a pivotal moment in your life. You may need to make some lifestyle changes or take a temporary break from certain activities while finding a treatment that helps you manage your symptoms. Your life will undoubtedly change after being diagnosed with a chronic condition, but people living with rheumatoid arthritis can thrive by doing what they already enjoy or by finding new activities that they love.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune and inflammatory disorder that affects the lining of your joints, causing joint swelling, stiffness, and pain. It tends to affect small joints first—like those in the fingers and toes—and can spread to larger joints as the disease progresses, according to the Mayo Clinic. Without treatment, the inflammation can affect other areas of your body, most commonly the eyes, skin, lungs, and heart. In addition to the pain, people with rheumatoid arthritis often experience fatigue, which can make it difficult to be active. Understanding all of this, it’s easy to see how the condition can affect your ability to hike, bake, or do anything that requires getting out of bed.
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but using treatments like medications and physical therapy along with managing disease triggers (some people say changing their diet can reduce flare-ups) can reduce your pain and hopefully get you back to living life the way you want. However, this may be really hard to believe if you haven’t yet found what works for you. Know that finding an effective treatment plan can take some trial and error, and in the meantime, you may need to modify or stop doing certain activities. To offer you some hope, we asked people living with rheumatoid arthritis who are managing their symptoms about how they’re thriving. Here are their stories.
1. “I have built a wonderful and successful career.”
“When I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis 15 years ago, I couldn’t turn on a faucet without significant pain. I was afraid that I would no longer be able to work, paint (my hobby), cook, or more immediately, take care of myself. Thankfully, around six years ago we struck treatment gold and found a regimen that really works for me. My symptoms are very well controlled, so I mostly have good days with very little pain. I have been able to build a wonderful and successful career as a lab director where I work each day in an environment with accommodations to match my needs. A hybrid desk that moves from sitting to standing, an ergonomic chair, and little things like an arthritis-friendly staple remover all make it possible to work comfortably. I have also adapted how I paint to accommodate painful fingers, hands, and wrists that sometimes make it challenging to hold a brush. Using my fingers to add texture and movement like I would use a brush allows me to express myself creatively without pain.” —Michelle O., 45
2. “In 2020, I ran my highest mileage in years.”
“My biggest fear when I was diagnosed in 2016 was that I would not be able to run anymore. I did a lot of grieving, but I also did a lot of homework. I changed my diet to eat fewer inflammatory foods and more fruits and veggies. I took the medications my doctor prescribed, and I also continued to run. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but I dug deep and in 2020, I ran my highest mileage in years! Being able to get outside and run was a great coping mechanism during the pandemic.
Running has always been instrumental to my mental health. I also believe that it has been helpful with my rheumatoid arthritis. Running keeps my joints in motion. I’m really grateful that in spite of rheumatoid arthritis, I’ve been able to continue to do what I love.” —Wendy R., 58
3. “I can still be in the mountains and let my adventurous spirit run wild and free.”
“After being in remission for 12 years, I fractured a bone in my foot while skiing due in part to bone damage I incurred years before when my rheumatoid arthritis wasn’t being treated. The fracture would not heal, and I had to have the bone removed. I can no longer trail run, rock climb, or ski for long periods of time due to severe foot pain. The stress of this, plus 2020, triggered my rheumatoid arthritis again.
I am learning that I can still be in the mountains and let my adventurous spirit run wild and free—it just might look a little different. Instead of doing a ski ascent of Mount Hood, I now backcountry ski my local butte. If the pain is too bad, I turn around before reaching the summit. Instead of backpacking for a week in the mountains, I am now exploring bike-packing, because it is a lower impact activity. I have also picked up whitewater rafting and kayaking so I can feel connected to wild places and still feel like I am challenging myself mentally and physically. I still mountaineer, but the goal of reaching the summit is not always the end-all. I have learned to be okay not making it to the top and to enjoy the adventure for what it is.” —Alison F., 34
4. “I decided to start a master’s degree in education studies.”
“After I took some time off from work to come to terms with my diagnosis and find the right medication, I found a job in adult education, a field I had worked in for years helping vulnerable adults. I also decided to start a master’s degree in education studies, and I am about to start my final dissertation now.
My physical health hasn’t always been good, and I have had ups and downs with my medication. Despite this, I joined a netball team in 2019 and played in the local netball league with a group of other people—mostly moms. I absolutely loved being part of a team and feeling healthy. Every now and again I have a bad week or month and need to take care of myself. But I won’t let it stop me from trying new things, like starting my new fashion Instagram account, where I share my love of clothes and how they make me feel.” —Joanna A., 38
5. “I went camping for the first time…something on my bucket list I never thought I could accomplish.”
“When I was first diagnosed, I had two young kids that I was homeschooling, and I was very active in community and faith groups. I’ve learned to plan breaks and rest instead of pushing through my pain, and I listen to the signals my body gives me (like swelling, pain, and fatigue) and adjust accordingly.
I am now a grandma and can keep up with my granddaughter probably better than I did with her mom! This past summer, I went camping for the first time. We canoed to an island and pitched a tent, slept on a foam mat, made fires, and foraged. I would have never tried that five years ago. It was something on my bucket list I never thought I could accomplish!” —Jackie A., 42
6. “I have a fulfilling career as an executive.”
“At the time of my diagnosis, I had a hard time with the simplest things—getting dressed, walking, and even working. I was very fearful that this was what my life was going to be like. Thankfully, my rheumatologist helped me find a treatment protocol that worked for me. As I started to feel better, I was able to start slowly adding things back in, like walking and swimming. As I did, the fear subsided; I could really see that this was a hurdle but not one I couldn’t overcome.
It’s been 18 years since my diagnosis. What I’ve really learned on this journey is that a bad day, week, month, or even year does not mean a bad life. I currently enjoy reformer Pilates, swimming, biking, and Nordic walking. I have a fulfilling career as an executive. It can be challenging to manage a demanding career with a chronic disease because I don’t always know when I’m not going to feel well. (It’s helped to have an employer who is understanding.) By focusing on my work delivery and quality, I have built my credibility. That is ultimately what most managers are focused on—delivery and quality. Rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t necessarily have to limit that.” —Lisa O., 47
7. “I’m signing up to do a half-marathon this summer.”
“When I was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, it was debilitating. My husband had to help me get ready for work. It took a toll on our relationship and made a huge impact on my mental health. I became depressed and would only leave the house to go to work. One day, I was looking at pictures from before my diagnosis and noticed all the fun things that my husband and I used to do. It dawned on me that my diagnosis wasn’t just controlling my life, it was controlling his too. At that moment, I decided to fight back. I joined a gym and changed my diet, eliminating foods that caused flares for me.
As I kept up with this new routine, my morning stiffness and pain slowly improved. I signed up to run a 5K, which I had done plenty of times before my diagnosis but thought I would never do again. I started ice skating again—I was a figure skater for 10 years—and I am signing up to do a half-marathon this summer. I most likely will take walk breaks but hope to complete it. By making my health a priority, which I wish I would have done sooner, I’ve been able to live a semi-active life again.” —Alison J., 31
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