Rheumatoid arthritis: A healthy lifestyle relieves one woman's pain

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Rheumatoid arthritis: A healthy lifestyle relieves one woman's pain

Rheumatoid arthritis — profile of a woman managing her condition.

Regular exercise, a healthy diet, good stress management and the loving support of family and friends. These are golden rules that can benefit everyone. But for Sue Lepore and others with rheumatoid arthritis, these same factors can help manage a chronic disease.

Sue has had rheumatoid arthritis for more than 30 years. With rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system attacks the lining of your joints, making them inflamed and painful. Eventually, rheumatoid arthritis can completely destroy your joints.

Symptoms come and go

Sue was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis during her teen years. However, the signs and symptoms subsided during her first pregnancy. This remission lasted 10 years, after which pain and stiffness came creeping back into her joints.

Photo of Sue Lepore

"Some days, I feel like my joints are balloons — that they're probably three times bigger than they really are," Sue says. "This has been a struggle for me. Sometimes my symptoms can flare up or subside in a matter of minutes. I can start out the day feeling great, but then half an hour later, I'm not doing as well."

Doctors don't know what initiates rheumatoid arthritis. Although it's not an infection, some researchers suspect it may be triggered by an infection — possibly a virus or a bacterium to which some people may be susceptible. There's no known cure, so treatment involves a variety of tactics aimed at reducing the pain, inflammation and physical deformity that rheumatoid arthritis can cause. These tactics include medication, surgery and physical therapy.

Healthy lifestyle brings relief

"Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that affects the whole person — his or her sense of well-being, work, family life and community life. It affects everything a person does," says Eric Matteson, M.D., a rheumatologist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.

That's why it's important not only to be vigilant in taking prescription medications but also to focus on the basics of a healthy lifestyle. These fundamentals include:

  • Staying as physically active as possible
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Managing stress
  • Maintaining social support

Physical activity as treatment

In addition to helping you maintain muscle strength, joint mobility and flexibility, physical activity can help you reduce pain, sleep better, keep up your spirits and maintain a healthy weight.

Part of the challenge for Sue is finding a good balance between keeping active and not overusing her joints. "I have to learn to read my body and know when to stop and for how long," she explains. "The problem with arthritis is that you don't ever want to just lie around all of the time, either. You have to make yourself get up and move to maintain mobility in your joints."

In general, a good rule of thumb is to be more active when the disease is under control and rest when it flares up.

You may have to switch gears when it comes to physical activity and find new approaches to activities you once enjoyed. Sue had to give up bowling, volleyball and tennis because they were too strenuous for her joints. She has, however, been able to continue playing golf by using an adjusted golf club and a golf cart. The support of her friends has been invaluable.

"If I have trouble bending down to tee up the ball, my friends will help me with that — and they'll pick it up for me," says Sue.

Healthy diet helps with weight control

No scientific research has proved that specific foods or nutrients can help people control their arthritis, although some studies have shown that certain fish oils may help reduce inflammation in some people with rheumatoid arthritis. Eating a balanced diet is good for overall health and can help you control your weight, which can reduce pressure on your joints.

Be sure to include adequate protein and calcium in your diet, and ask your doctor about limiting alcohol, if you drink. Though you may lose your appetite during flares, it's still important to consume enough calories from nutritious sources.

Stiffness and pain can make it difficult to maneuver around the kitchen and fix healthy meals. You can take steps to make these tasks easier. For example, keep menus simple and use assistive devices, such as electronic appliances, wide-handled kitchen tools or cutting boards with a gripping surface.

Sue still cooks but she's made adjustments. "I have to be pretty organized, and if I'm planning a big meal, I work in spurts. I'll cook a little, then I'll lie down for a while or go for a walk."

Stress management relieves anxiety

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, in addition to physical symptoms you may experience a variety of unpleasant emotions, including fear, frustration and sadness. These emotions can increase your stress level.

Though stress hasn't been proved to cause rheumatoid arthritis, it can make managing the condition more difficult. And stress-related muscle tension may worsen your symptoms.

"I've learned to practice relaxation and stress management, because I tend to be sensitive to stress," Sue says. Strategies for managing stress include deep-breathing exercises, visualization techniques and relaxation exercises.

Social support brings comfort

Social support helps Sue keep a positive attitude about her condition.

"I've been fortunate to have supportive friends. They've hung in there with me. They step in even when I don't ask for help — they know it's very hard for me to ask for help," Sue says.

A good support network can give you a place to talk about your feelings, which can help relieve stress. Also, as in Sue's case, a support network can make sure that you don't overexert yourself.

If you find that you don't receive sufficient support from friends and family, your doctor may be able to recommend a local support group. Such a group can be a good place to share ideas and experiences, and see how others cope with similar challenges.

Stay in the know

Underlying all of this is the importance of educating yourself about your disease.

"Disease education is absolutely essential. We try to tell patients that this is a disease that we have ways of controlling, and that no one who develops rheumatoid arthritis should wind up in a wheelchair in three or five years. That's rarely — and in modern times I would say virtually never — the case," explains Dr. Matteson. However, "it is still a concern for patients who have long-standing disease."

Therapies for rheumatoid arthritis have greatly improved over the years — life expectancy, joint function and quality of life are much better now than they were in the past. Taking necessary medications and following the tenets of a healthy lifestyle — physical activity, healthy eating, stress management and social support — will help you avoid being sidelined by your disease.

Editor's note: Four years after first sharing her story, Sue Lepore reports that she's still finding relief for her rheumatoid arthritis through exercise, watching her weight and stress management. Besides playing golf, Sue rides a recumbent bike, which is easier on her back, takes a low-impact aerobics class and occasionally practices yoga. She works part time and keeps busy with numerous work-related projects.

Last Updated: 11/10/2005
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