An estimated 1.5 million Americans have a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Many patients with the autoimmune illness experience flare-ups and chronic pain. But speaking up at the doctor's office and making lifestyle adjustments can help alleviate some of the pain and discomfort, says Nick Turkas, senior director for patient education at the Arthritis Foundation.
"I think it's very common for people with arthritis to not complain," said Turkas. He emphasizes the importance of discussing it with your doctor.
"If you're not talking to your doctor about your knee pain or you're not talking about your hip pain or your finger pain or whatever it is, you are missing an opportunity to improve your health. And we know that people wait, and they wait too long."
Turkas stressed that untreated rheumatoid arthritis joint pain can contribute to a sedentary lifestyle, which can lead to the development of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Left untreated or under-treated, RA can require surgery.
Physical therapy and movement programs can contribute to improvement in pain levels. The Arthritis Foundation offers its "Vim" app to help users improve from the ability to stand for 10 minutes to being able to stand for an hour or longer. Starting small can have big results.
"If you want to exercise, start in a chair. There are things that you can do that way. You can start with, you know, gentle yoga or gentle tai chi or things that you can do that are modified that make it accessible in the beginning, and, as you progress, then you can open yourself to a lot more opportunities," said Turkas.
Chronic pain can also be the first domino in the cycle of stress and depression, according to Turkas.
Arthritis Foundation data from a recent patient-reported survey noted that people with someone to connect with or talk to regularly were twice as likely to physically function at a higher level than those who said they felt isolated.
Online groups can help rheumatoid arthritis patients connect with one another, especially in groups for particular subsets, such as groups for young adults with RA or recently diagnosed patients, as well as groups for Black or Asian patients.
Turkas says no matter where an RA patient starts with lifestyle pain management, it's important not to go too fast or start beyond one's ability level.
"Goals have to be attainable. If the goal seems like it's too 'pie in the sky' or too difficult, that's the worst thing that can happen to someone with chronic disease," Turkas said. "They feel like, well, I can't do anything. I'm a failure. Take [small] steps to better manage your health."
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