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Rheumatoid arthritis: Symptoms and treatments

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

Young women & arthritis

Did you know women are two to three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis (RA) than men? Experts estimate that approximately 1.3 million people in the US have RA, including young women - the disease commonly strikes people between 30 and 50 years old - as well as almost 300,000 children. Though you may think RA is a disease that only affects older people, it can occur at any age, and is considered one of the most debilitating forms of arthritis because it can cause deformity and disability in addition to chronic pain and discomfort. If you are suffering joint tenderness, stiffness, muscle weakness, and flu-like symptoms that don't seem to go away, read on for more information on RA as well as expert advice in treating it.

Treatments for rheumatoid arthritis

Currently, there is no cure for RA, but there are several treatments and lifestyle changes that can help you best manage your symptoms.

Dr Wilson explains, "The treatment options range from physical therapy, arthritis aquatics, yoga, Tai Chi, weight loss, lifestyle changes, empowerment through education, [and medications]."

Most people start with over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen and then take prescription drugs. "We generally consider disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) such as methotraxate if we feel there is a significant inflammatory process going on." Your rheumatologist may also suggest biologic response modifiers (BRMs) such as TNF-inhibitors, which can prevent damage to your joints.

RA can be equally psychologically painful and debilitating, if gone undiagnosed. "Emotionally, it was frustrating because I couldn't do the things I wanted to do. Just simple things like braiding [my daughters'] hair and making dinner," recalls Fawcett, who also retired from her Olympic soccer career due to RA. "It was frustrating until I figured out my treatment plan and what worked best for me. I started with methotrexate and it worked for several years, but when the RA progressed I worked with my doctor and he prescribed Remicade, which has helped me tremendously."

(Click for more treatment options for RA)

5 Tips to manage your symptoms

In addition to medications, there are a number of ways to keep RA from decreasing the quality of your life.

1. Choose a good healthcare team. Dr Wilson says that in addition to finding competent healthcare providers, "most importantly be an engaged and active member of the team — as with any endeavor, the more you put into it, the more benefit you will get out of it."

2. Be honest with yourself and your doctor. Of course you don't want to consider limiting your activities because of a disease, but RA doesn't go away because you ignore it. Be honest with yourself about your symptoms and be frank with your doctor. "The quality of medical decision-making hinges on the information provided by the patient," explains Dr Wilson.

3. Do your research. Research indicates that people who are more educated tend to have less severe disease. Dr Wilson suggests that you learn as much as you can about your disease as well as the therapeutic considerations for treatment. In doing so, you will be better armed to discuss your condition — and concerns — with your doctor.

4. Stay active. Though you may have to modify your activities, you can still be physically active. Appropriate exercise can help you manage your pain as well as help you maintain a healthy weight. A study published in the October issue of Arthritis Care and Research suggests that an increase in body fat — particularly in the arms and legs — and a decrease in muscle may lead to greater disability in people with RA.

5. Consider your diet. Eat a healthy diet comprised of whole foods — fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats (particularly omega-3's, which have anti-inflammatory properties). Talk to your doctor or registered dietician for healthy weight-loss plans if you are overweight or to ensure you are getting your recommended daily intake of vitamins, minerals and other key nutrients. And if you are considering supplements, check out the Arthritis Foundation's Supplement Guide — be sure to talk to your doctor before adding any supplements to your treatment plan.

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