13 Things to Know for Rheumatoid Arthritis Newbies

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Receiving a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a moment of strange duality. On one hand, you may be relieved to finally have answers for the symptoms you've been experiencing. On the other, it can be incredibly overwhelming to find out you have a chronic illness. Wrapping your head around all the new factors RA brings into your life is a long-term process. Here are some of the things you need to know.

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Preparing to see your rheumatologist

Finding a good rheumatologist who will work with you as an equal partner, supporting you to get better is an essential part of your future with RA. This kind of relationship is very much a two-way street and you can contribute to its success by preparing for your appointments. Make sure you have a list of the questions you want to ask and copies of tests you’ve had done. You may also want to bring a friend or family member for moral support.

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Blood tests and what they mean

Blood tests will be regular on your journey with RA. Usually, your rheumatologist will keep an eye on your inflammation markers as well as tests indicating the health of your organs. These will help your doctor assess the state of your RA — it’s a systemic condition, which can affect your internal organs, as well. Learning more about what the blood tests mean can help you ask better questions when you see your rheumatologist.

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Imaging tests for RA

Your rheumatologist also keeps an eye on what your RA is doing through imaging tests. X-rays are usually the first kind of imaging your doctor orders. However, they may also send you to computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or ultrasound, all of which can be more sensitive than X-rays. These tests are non-invasive and mostly just require you to lie still while a machine clicks around you. Having copies of the test results for your records can be useful if other doctors ask to see them.

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Medication for RA

Once you have a diagnosis for RA, you’ll usually also get a prescription for medication. There are various drugs used to treat RA. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, treat the symptoms of inflammation. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are used to treat the underlying condition, as do biologics. You may occasionally also be prescribed steroids. This can seem like a lot, but you may not use all of these. As well, it can help to remember that medication is a tool to get you back to living your life.

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What about diet?

There isn’t a lot of research on how diet can affect RA, but it appears that only some people respond to dietary changes. Some foods may help, while others may trigger flares. If you choose to explore the role of diet, it’s a good idea to consult a dietitian to make sure that you get all the nutrients your body needs. We also recommend that you keep your doctor updated on any changes you make.

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Can I treat RA naturally?

When you’re diagnosed with RA, it is normal to try to be as healthy as possible. Some lean toward natural or alternative remedies. Unfortunately, there is currently no evidence that alternative remedies can effectively suppress RA. It’s also important to keep in mind that natural medicines are an actual type of medication, with side effects and interactions. If you want to explore natural medicines, consult a doctor of naturopathy for expert guidance.

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The emotional reaction

Receiving a diagnosis of chronic illness is difficult. Knowing that you will deal with RA for the rest of your life can make you feel depressed. Living with RA can be tough - it's OK to be sad. Grieving the loss of the healthy you is a normal process that will eventually help you come to accept where you're at. If you are having trouble coping, talk to your doctor about a referral to a counsellor or therapist. Some people also benefit from antidepressants.

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Move your body

Your doctors will tell you that physical activity is important when you have RA. But when you are stiff and achy, it’s difficult to feel motivated to keep moving. There’s a saying among some in the RA community: “Motion is lotion.” Exercise will strengthen your muscles, which supports the joints. A physical therapist might be able to help you develop an exercise routine that is easy on your joints. Be creative. You’re more likely to keep exercising if it’s something you enjoy.

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Work and RA

RA can affect all aspects of your life, including work. If you find that changes in your pain and energy levels are impacting your work, it may be time to talk to your employer about accommodations for your RA. Changing how you work can enable you to work better. You may choose to keep your condition private or be open about it at work. Some people experience problems with coworkers, but your employer should be able to help you solve this.

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Relationships and sex

Having a chronic illness can mess with your body image. When you don’t feel well and are in pain, you don’t feel very attractive, which can make you think others don’t find you attractive either. It can affect your relationship and sex life or keep you from dating. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Partners can work together to make a better relationship. There are steps you can take toward having a healthy and active sex life with RA.

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Parenting with RA

In the past, most women with RA did not have children. This has changed with advances in treatment and many people now build their families just like their healthy peers. Some worry about a chronic illness having a negative impact on their kids, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Growing up with a parent who has RA can actually teach kids some valuable lessons. Pregnancy and parenting with RA have some unique challenges, but they can be overcome.

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Dealing with the reactions of others

There are many misperceptions about RA and it can make it difficult to negotiate your every day. Advances in treatment have led to RA becoming a largely invisible illness, which has its own challenges. Many in the RA community find themselves becoming advocates almost accidentally, as they share information about the condition with others. Doing some research to make sure you share the correct information can be helpful, as can developing a thick skin.

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Living with RA

Although you might feel scared and worried right now, I promise you this: Over time, you will adapt to having RA and find a way back to living your life. Because it’s still right there, waiting for you to ease back in and live it. The worries you have now will diminish as you learn more about the condition and what it’s like to live with it. Most of all, you will find a way to laugh again and to enjoy life. It may have changed with RA, but it can still be a good one.