Part of living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is not knowing how you'll feel tomorrow. The unpredictable nature of this disease is one of the biggest challenges to coping with it. But tracking your symptoms can be a valuable tool in building a better life with this condition.
Having RA is like living with a mean and capricious roommate who randomly decides to mess with your life. I used to have a theory that one of the triggers to my RA flares was changing the channel on the television. It seemed as good an explanation as any when trying to establish some sort of predictability in a situation that felt out of control.
And that's at the core of it all, isn't it--control. A chronic illness has swooped in and taken control of your life, leaving you not knowing what will happen later today, tomorrow, or next week. Wresting back some element of control is the first step to getting on with your life. This is where a symptom diary can help.
What is a symptom diary?
A symptom diary is a way to track your symptoms and relate them to potential triggers. As you note your body's response to different triggers, you start to get a sense of patterns. For instance, staying up past 10 p.m. usually means dragging your way through the next day. Or eating birthday cake makes your joints flare or taking a particular medication gives you a stomach ache. Whether you're looking at RA flares, your pain levels or side effects of medication, keeping track can help you establish a cause and effect pattern.
Finding a pattern to your symptoms can help you predict at least some of what will happen and perhaps allow you to take preventative action. For instance, if you discover that eating sweets one day sends you into a flare the next, you can adapt your diet to avoid those sugar-related increases in symptoms. If your tracking tells you that your symptoms increase when it rains, you can prepare yourself by increasing your pain meds and resting, if possible. In addition to being able to change your behavior to reduce symptoms, simply knowing that you may have a flare can make it easier to cope with the pain and fatigue. Predictability leads to feeling in control.
How to keep a symptom diary
It's important to use a tracker several times a day for several weeks. The more information you give your symptom diary and the longer time you do so, the more accurate you will be in identifying patterns.
The old-school approach to tracking your symptoms involves using a notebook and pen. If you are trying to identify triggers that increase your RA symptoms, make a chart for every day that includes levels of fatigue and pain, what you eat, the weather, your activities for the day and so on. Adapt the chart to reflect the symptoms and triggers you're trying to identify.
A newer, more automated way of keeping track includes using one of the many smartphone symptom tracker apps available. Examples include Track+React from The Arthritis Foundation, which helps to identify connections between what you do and how you feel. WebMD's Pain Coachâ„¢ can be used for a variety of painful conditions arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine to track the impact of different activities and treatments on your pain levels. Manage My Pain provides long-term trends and analysis, including the impact of medication. Doing a search for the term symptom tracker in your app store will show you more options. Look for apps that will produce reports you can share with your doctors. Talk to your friends and other community members about the apps they like to get a sense of which app will work best for you.
A symptom tracker or diary isn't a magic wand. It won't help you avoid all flares or eliminate your pain. It will, however, help you start to reclaim control, to reduce some flares and be a tool in your pain management regimen. And that is the first step towards living well with RA.
Lene Andersen writes the award-winning blog The Seated View. She's the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain.