The Specter of RA: Is Remission Real?

Sara Nash Health Guide
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    I'm usually a pretty brave girl when it comes to dealing with the trials and travails of living with rheumatoid arthritis, but there is one subject that makes me feel, well, a little spooked: (dare my fingers even type the word?) Remission.


    Somehow, though my condition has steadily improved over the last year and a half, this topic has remained a cold, murky, concept. Although it's the ultimate goal, it feels unattainable most of the time.  I mean, how do you know if you are in remission?  What does it even mean to be in remission when your disease is chronic, and you are only ever one flare away from having your body wrecked?

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    According to the Merriam-Webster medical dictionary, the definition of remission is "a state or period during which the symptoms of a disease are abated." According to this definition, I might qualify as being in remission, or pretty close to it, physically. These days, my RA isn't presenting itself in the form of severe pain, fatigue and big, fat swollen joints, but emotionally and mentally, it's a whole different story. Even when my RA is quiet, it's still there, lurking in the shadows like a ghost.


    A few weeks ago, I woke up early enough on a Saturday to go to a 9 a.m. yoga class.  It was an intermediate level class, but I was feeling energetic and up for the challenge.  As we went through the beginning sun salutations, I was pleased to feel my body warming up nicely, and I knew it was going to be a good, juicy practice. The pace picked up, and we began going from one pose right into another. We moved forward from downward facing dog into plank pose, and before I even realized what I was doing, I was halfway into caturanga, a pose that puts a lot of pressure on your wrists, and one that I resolutely don't do any more, ever, AT ALL.  As soon as I realized what I was doing, I put my knees down to modify the pose and take pressure off my wrists, but I could feel a sense of alarm moving through my nervous system in response to the fact that I had nearly done something forbidden -- something that might rouse my RA from its slumber.


    After class, I kept thinking about this moment.  Clearly, on a physical level, my body had felt fine and ready to move into that pose - one it had known quite well in my pre-RA days, but one that I figured I wouldn't ever practice again, even if I could for fear of bringing on a flare or overstressing my joints. It was as if I could feel the cold breath of RA over my shoulder, whispering menacingly in my ear that I'd better not push my luck...or else!


    Later that week, I sat on my yoga mat at home and got ready to practice on my own.  I was feeling pretty good again. My wrists felt fine, so I decided to try caturanga out and see how my body reacted.   As I moved from downward facing dog into plank pose, I slowly bent my arms and lowered myself push-up style closer to the floor into caturanga, then into another "banned" pose, upward facing dog, and then back into downward facing dog.  I felt fine.  Emboldened, I moved through a decidedly unmodified practice, but the whole time I couldn't help feeling like my RA was going to come up behind me and viciously pull the mat out from under my feet, just to show me who was really in charge.


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    What struck me most about this experience was that I ought to have felt overjoyed at the fact that I had been physically well enough that day to practice yoga the way I used to practice.  I had reclaimed a part of my old life that I thought had been given up for good.  I should have been bouncing off the ceiling, proclaiming myself in remission and throwing myself a big old party in four-inch heels to celebrate. Instead, I kept quiet, waiting for the other high-heeled shoe to drop.  Surely this just wasn't allowed.  If you have RA, you don't get to truly feel good anymore. Even when you do, do you?


    I can still feel my RA's presence. As I make my morning tea, a slight twinge in my hands will emerge or as I walk down the subway steps, a sharp pain will appear in my ankle followed by a creaking in my knees. No matter where I go or how good I feel, the specter of RA follows me around and is a constant reminder that I'm only as good as the meds I'm on, and that thought haunts me. Today may be about downward facing dog, but tomorrow might be about a downward spiral.


    Shaking off the ghost of RA is tricky. There are no RABusters to call, but little by little, it is possible to do. What it mostly requires is a leap of faith and the determination to live moment-by-moment, allowing ourselves to relish the moments we feel good. After all, isn't that what being in remission is all about?




    Sara is the author of the blog, The Single Gal's Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis and a partner in the Buckle Me Up International Young Arthritis Awareness Movement. Find out more at Buckle Me Up!

Published On: August 05, 2009