Adapting to Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Jennie Roe Health Guide
  • As I stand amidst the chaos of moving boxes, bubble wrap and packing tape, preparing for the imminent move from the home I love, I can't help musing over how much my life has changed in the last year since I was diagnosed with RA.


    We bought this home a little over three years ago ... our own little piece of Heaven on Earth, in a small rural community just a few minutes walk to beautiful pristine ocean beaches.  Two hours drive - and a million miles - away from the big smoke.  This was where we planned to ultimately retire when our working days were behind us.  We spent the last few years slowly renovating the house, getting it just the way we wanted, and turning it into a home.  Many a coffee break and late afternoon glass of wine were had on the outside decks, taking in the sea breezes, and generally unwinding from the ongoing stresses of work, family and 'life in the fast lane' that seems to define the 21st century. 

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    There is only one problem with the house ... the stairs.  It is a two-storey home;  the decks catch the sea breezes because they are UP STAIRS!


    Three years ago, when we bought the house, stairs weren't an issue.   And if the truth be known,  they aren't a major problem right now either, as my RA is largely under control and I've learned to minimize the use of the stairs as much as possible, to avoid aggravating my joints.  But thanks to the months of pain leading up to and following my RA diagnosis last year, I had a sneak peak into how I might cope with stairs in the future as I age - and it wasn't pretty!


    There were so many days last year when every step up (as well as many down) was nothing less than excruciating on my sensitive toes, feet and knees - none of which was helped by having to use stairs each day at both home and at work, where my office was also up one flight of stairs and there was no elevator.


    But so much has changed since then.


    I eventually quit my job. The long hours, the mounting stress, the constant interstate travel - was all too much to cope with on top of months of unexplained pain.  Every click of the mouse and stroke of the keyboard hurt my shoulders, wrists and fingers. And I was increasingly 'crotchety' after months of painfully sleep-deprived nights. Ironically, the RA diagnosis came just weeks after my resignation and, to this day, I wonder whether I'd still be in that job had I been diagnosed and treated sooner and had my RA under control. I guess I'll never know. In the end, I took several months break from working to allow my body and spirit to recover, before working part time and then eventually returning to full-time work again earlier this year.


    My new job is just as busy, and just as stressful. But this time I've learned to set boundaries and to look after myself a lot better than I ever did before. I now take cues from my body and amend my working hours accordingly; for instance, some days when the old bod is stiffer than usual, I take my time and come in to the office a bit later. I try to take lunch breaks more often instead of eating my lunch at my desk while working through the in-tray and never-ending emails. And instead of working all hours, I now try to leave in time to do an evening aqua exercise class on the way home. Plus, my employer organised for an occupational health assessor to advise me on strategies and devices to ensure that my posture and work habits avoid unnecessarily straining my joints.  Careful placement of items such as the keyboard, mouse, monitor and phone is critical here, as is regular stretching and movement to avoid stiffness.  And the gel rests on the mouse pad and keyboard to support my wrists really make a difference.  All small steps, but they each help to avoid the problems I experienced in the past.


    One of the biggest impacts since my RA diagnosis has been on my lifestyle.  I think it would be fair to say that I drank more alcohol than was good for me, and exercise was a foreign word in my vocabulary!  But I don't need to exacerbate my risk of liver damage from Methotrexate, so I've cut my alcohol intake right back. And now when I do enjoy the occasional drink, I've been delighted to sample from the ever-increasing range of low-alcohol products that are now on the market (many of which have the added bonus of being low calorie!). Elsewhere, I've talked about my newfound regular exercise regime with aqua aerobics and the positive benefits that has produced.  Concern about dropping my weight and reducing stress on my joints has also seen me take better care of my diet; nothing radical, and no gimmicks or fad diets, just common sense approaches to eating more fresh fruit and veggies, and other foods in moderation.

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    I should note that the changes to eating, drinking and exercise habits aren't necessarily negative things ... but I decided last year that RA wasn't going to define me, and so learning to live positively with RA has meant facing down my old lifestyle and making some tough choices. And let's face it ... we all know what we have to do to look after our general wellbeing and maintain a healthy weight through diet, exercise and sensible drinking.  It isn't rocket science!  But it is jolly hard work to find the motivation to introduce - and then sustain - changes to our lifestyles in this way. But my RA and joints are depending on a healthier, slimmer and fitter me ... and the positive benefits of this on the rest of my overall health is a bonus!


    While the changes to my lifestyle and work habits are probably the most profound, when I look back on the last year there are also so many little everyday changes that seem to have crept into my life:

    • I deal with tiredness and fatigue by going to bed earlier than I once did, and by week's end I absolutely need to recharge my batteries with a 'nanna nap' on Saturday (and sometimes also on Sunday) afternoons. This is unheard of for me, but now I just don't function well the following week without catching up on sleep when I can.
    • Chopping veggies and opening tins and jars - holding knives in ways that lessen strain, using aids and devices to assist and, importantly, being prepared to let others take over with the chopping and grating (what can I say, Superwoman has much to answer for!);
    • My clothes increasingly are looser and made of stretch fabrics that are easier to pull on and off without annoying my shoulders, and buttons and zips are few (for which my arthritic fingers and thumbs are thankful!);
    • My shoes, sadly, aren't as sexy as they once might have been. Now I go for practical shoes ... low heels, easy to slip on and off, and adaptable enough to cope with frequent widening due to swollen feet. And thanks to a very unpleasant and embarrassing incident once at an airport security scanner, when my painful fingers wouldn't play the game and unbuckle the strappy sandals that kept setting off the alarm, my shoes no longer have lots of buckles, straps or laces!
    • I no longer carry my handbag over my shoulder; it is carried in my hand or, more often, over my forearm. And I try (not always successfully) to lighten the load! It took several months, but now I almost never experience the constant pain that I used to have in my shoulders.
    • Similarly, I carry grocery bags with either two hands or over my forearms, rather than my old habit of carrying bags on a couple of fingers.
    • And I avoid carrying anything heavy or awkward. Now I try to use shopping carts, even if its just to carry a few items. I used to use a basket and fill it so full I could barely carry it with two hands.
    • I now use splints on my wrists at the first sign of discomfort, and generally these avert pain and problems from developing. There is a big difference between these days, and those when I don't use splints when the niggles first start or if I don't have them with me at the time.
    • Oh, and I avoid stairs wherever I can!


  • As you can see, my life has changed in many ways since being diagnosed with RA - from little everyday modifications to profound lifestyle changes.  And as I look back over the changes, they are all positive and sensible ... some of which I should probably have made many years ago.  But it took a chronic disease like RA - and my determination that I would not allow it to define me - to make such positive changes to my life and to the way I go about my daily activities.

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    And as we prepare to move from the home that we love, I know that I am just taking the next step in my life. Our new home will be just as lovely, where we will continue to create and share wonderful experiences.  It will just be on one level!

Published On: May 17, 2011