Health Resources to Cope With RAby Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a systemic condition that affects many parts of your body. Treating your condition, and its symptoms, is therefor a multidisciplinary effort. To make sure you feel as well as possible given that you have a chronic illness, you will build a medical team consisting of specialists from a variety of fields. On top of that, other health-related professionals may also be part of your team.
Managing RA takes a village and you are its leader. Although you likely don’t have a medical degree, you are an expert in how RA affects your body, your mind, and your life. When you have a chronic illness, it’s important to develop your self-advocacy skills. The health professionals on your team will rely on you to report your symptoms, the benefits and side effects of medication, ask for information, and let them know when things are not working.
When you have RA, it is essential for you to have a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in treating different types of arthritis. RA can be a tricky condition to manage, so it’s important that the first person added to your team is a good rheumatologist. If your family doctor suspects might have RA, or another type of autoimmune arthritis, they will refer you to a rheumatologist. Ideally, this will be someone who is on top of the latest research, connects with you as a team member, and with whom you feel comfortable.
RA medication can be very expensive, particularly the biologics. If you're having difficulty paying your medical expenses, there is help. If you see doctors who are part of a hospital, that hospital might have a payment plan or an application for financial assistance. You may also qualify for financial assistance for medication offered by pharmaceutical companies or nonprofits. As well, some pharmaceutical companies have co-pay discount cards.
When you live with RA, you tend to get a lot of blood tests. This is one of the tools your rheumatologist uses to assess how your RA is affecting you. It can help to get to know the people (called phlebotomists) who draw your blood. If your veins are difficult to access (colloquially called a “hard stick”), it helps to have someone who knows your veins and having a friendly conversation while getting your blood drawn makes everything easier. If you are afraid of needles, it can also be easier to talk about it with someone you know.
Living with RA is challenging, both physically and emotionally. To help you cope with issues related to living with RA, you may want to seek counseling. If you end up with a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, for example, a psychiatrist can prescribe medication for you. Sometimes, such medication can also be prescribed by your family doctor. A social worker, psychologist, or clergy person may also offer counseling. Stress can trigger a flare of your RA. Learning how to manage stress can help you feel better.
Adding a nutritionist or dietitian to your care team can help you feel better overall and may even improve your symptoms. Some people’s RA responds to food, and a dietitian can help you explore different diets in a healthy way. As well, having RA may lead to weight changes, either gain or loss, from medication side effects, a more sedentary lifestyle, high pain levels, or nausea. A nutritionist or dietitian can help you put together a healthy diet that will work for your individual situation.
Most people with RA take a variety of medications. One of your best friends could — and should — be your pharmacist. Pharmacists can help make sure none of your medications, whether prescription or over-the-counter, interact with each other. They can advocate for you if there are issues with your insurance, and they can communicate with your doctor should the need arise. Your pharmacist can also be a good source of information about funding sources for medication.
A physical therapist can be a great help in keeping you mobile. They are experts in physical function and rehabilitation medicine and can put together an exercise program that can strengthen your body without making you flare. If you’ve had surgery, physical therapy is commonly prescribed to help you recover. Physical therapy can also be helpful if you have an injury, whether it is related to your RA or something else.
If you need help to function better at home or at work, ask for a referral to an occupational therapist (OT). These experts also work in rehabilitation medicine, but focus on helping you improve how you do your activities of daily living or perform tasks at your job. An OT excels at recommending tools or different ways of doing a task that can make it easier for someone with functional limitations, such as the pain and lack of strength that can be caused by RA.
If you, like many others with RA, want to complement your medical care with alternative remedies, such as supplements, herbal medicine, and others, you may want to consult a naturopath, also called a doctor of naturopathy. This kind of health professional approaches treatment from a holistic perspective, and is an expert in herbal medicine, acupuncture, and also does counselling. If you want to explore alternative medicine for your RA, always consult an expert, such as a naturopath.
Your rheumatologist may order frequent imaging tests, most commonly X-rays to assess whether your RA has caused damage to joints and soft tissue. This is part of the diagnostic process but is also used on a regular basis as part of managing your condition, and is done separately from your appointments with your doctor. Imaging tests often require you to spend a fair amount of time with radiologists and X-ray technologists.
Treating your pain can require a variety of tools. Medication is part of this, but your pain-management toolbox can also include massage. A registered massage therapist knows a variety of techniques, including what to do and not do when your RA is flaring. Shiatsu is a type of massage based in Eastern medicine and provided by a shiatsu therapist. Massage may be covered by your insurance.