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Rheumatoid Arthritis: How To Take Your Life Back

2014 April 8
by Leslie Vandever

“You have rheumatoid arthritis.”

Being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can be a profound shock. Even as relief washes through you—there’s finally an explanation for your sometimes excruciating joint pain and deadening fatigue—the denials and questions well up in your mind like unshed tears. “But I’m not old enough for arthritis!” and “will I end up disabled?” and “it can be cured, right?”

Eventually, you get explanations and answers. You are old enough for RA. It can strike at any age. With treatment, your disease may be slowed down so much you’ll never experience any lasting disability, but no. As of today, RA remains incurable.

So, treatment begins. RA drugs don’t take effect immediately. You might have to take them for three to six months before you can pinpoint any change in your symptoms and your doctor can detect positive changes in your blood tests. It could turn out that the drug you’re taking doesn’t work for you. RA is a notorious for its unpredictability. What works for one person may not work for another.

In the meantime, you’re still living with RA’s pain and fatigue. Your rheumatologist may have prescribed narcotic analgesics to help reduce your pain, but you’re understandably reluctant to take them unless you have to, fearing dependence or addiction. How, you wonder, am I ever going to live with this disease?

Fortunately, there are things you can do that will help.

Lifestyle Changes

RA imposes a lot of unwanted change. Take control and take action! Embracing the following positive changes can make your RA easier to live with.


  • Adopt a healthy diet. Eating well will make you feel good and provides the energy and strength you’ll need to cope with RA.  Choose plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grain breads, pastas and cereals, unsaturated fats like olive and canola oil, eggs, and lean meats and fish for your daily diet. Stick to low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese.  Avoid processed foods, and only indulge in sweets for special treats or on special occasions.
  • Rest and sleep. Both RA and the drugs you take to fight it can sap your energy. This makes getting a good night’s sleep every night absolutely vital. You’ll also need to learn to pace yourself and take mandatory rests during the day. If pain interrupts your sleep, talk to your doctor. She’ll have some ideas for how to address it. Some general rules for good sleep: go to bed and get up at the same times every day, even on weekends; sleep in a cool, dark, quiet room; leave the TV, computer and cell phone somewhere else in the house; and avoid caffeinated drinks after 5 p.m. and all drinks after 7 p.m.
  • Move Your Body. Fit a half-hour of gentle, low-impact exercise into your day at least four days a week. Walking, stretching and range-of-motion (ROM) movements, swimming, water exercise, and (when you’re not flaring) weight-bearing resistance exercises at the gym with machines, or a home with resistance bands, are the best for people who have RA. Tai Chi, a Chinese form of slow, flowing movement, breathing and meditation is excellent for people with RA. So is yoga, but it’s important to check before taking a class that the instructor knows how to alter positions to accommodate painful or disabled joints. The goal of exercising with RA is to maintain full ROM in all your joints while strengthening and maintaining the muscles that support them. If you’re out of shape, start slowly. Stick with it and be patient with yourself.


Living well with RA means staying active, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, seeing your doctor regularly and protecting your joints. You can do it.

Leslie Vandever—known as “Wren” to the readers of RheumaBlog, her personal blog about living well with rheumatoid arthritis—is a professional journalist and freelance writer with more than 25 years of experience. She lives in the foothills of Northern California.


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