Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), is a chronic disease that causes the immune system to attack its own tissue, most commonly destroying the small joints in our hands and feet. It can cause debilitating pain and stiffness, limiting mobility and, ultimately, ability to work and quality of life. An estimated 300,000 Canadians are living with RA right now, and women are almost three times more likely to develop RA than men.
The first signs of RA typically happen during our prime working years – between 30 and 50 years old. As RA is a progressive disease, it can cause damage in the joints. Without adequate treatment, joint deterioration can be rapid, and the damage is irreversible.
But there’s a way to can take control…
Being diagnosed with RA doesn’t have to be debilitating. In the last two decades, incredible advances have transformed the way patients live with the disease. Remission, when the signs and symptoms of inflammation are completely absent or rarely occur, is possible. The stiffness, tenderness, the loss of day-to-day lifestyle can be managed, if not mitigated. “Being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis may lead to a higher quality of life for some,” says Oakville-based rheumatologist, Dr. Sonja Gill. “It sounds counterintuitive, however, millions of patients suffer for years before being diagnosed. Labelling one’s symptoms and pursuing treatment prevents the disease from progressing under the surface, unchecked.”
Despite all the advances, more than two-thirds of treated patients still experience pain, stiffness and morning flare-ups. The difference between those suffering from RA and those thriving with RA are the steps they take early on. The goal of treatment is remission, but because of the aggressively progressive nature of the disease, it’s important to identify early symptoms and see a doctor as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, the onset is subtle. Smaller joints are affected first. Key symptoms are joint pain that lasts six or more weeks, tenderness in more than one joint and stiffness that lingers for 30-plus minutes in the morning. Joint pain occurs on both sides of the body and can be felt equally, meaning in the same joints on both sides of the body. Other early symptoms are often shrugged off as being normal signs of aging: fatigue, weakness and weight loss. So when you experience a combination of these symptoms, simply play it safe and see a doctor. Thanks to video health, telehealth and the great lengths medical offices go to stay safe, COVID fears shouldn’t stop you from seeking treatment. Because, when it comes to RA, time is of the essence.
If diagnosed with RA, your best defence is to seek early treatment, stay informed and advocate for yourself. Remission is your treatment target, and it’s best achieved through meaningful conversations with your rheumatologist and mapping out an appropriate treatment plan. “In this age of virtual medicine, patient self-advocacy is more important than ever. Patients should be educated about their disease and able to communicate its impact on their daily life,” says Dr. Gill. “These patients tend to do better in the long run.”
Here are some basic guidelines. Get a health journal – a simple notebook will suffice – and track your symptoms as they happen, logging their date and duration. Set short- and long-term lifestyle goals and discuss them with your doctor. Track your progressive changes and the way your body responds to medicines and exercises. This journal will serve as your RA bible, and empower you to have open, honest conversations with your doctor in pursuit of the best treatment possible.
When it comes to RA, just remember this:
Identify subtle symptoms early.
See a doctor as soon as possible.
Track your pain, progression and treatment.
Advocate for yourself.
Make remission your goal.