After an RA Diagnosis: 6 Action Steps
The exact course of rheumatoid arthritis is different for nearly everyone with the disease, but there are ways to limit the damage and live better.
By Jennifer Acosta Scott
Medically Reviewed by Alexa Meara, MD
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You learned, finally, that you have RA. Now what?
The days after a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can be confusing. You may need to cope with new drugs, doctors, and lifestyle changes along with the pain that now has a name.
But the steps you take early on to manage your condition can help protect your overall health, limit complications, and prevent your symptoms from worsening.
Stick to your RA medication regimen. Chances are you’ll need to take prescription medication to control the inflammation that comes with rheumatoid arthritis, and it may take some trial and error to find the ones that give you the most relief.
You might also have a hard time just getting used to the fact that you will need RA medication therapy for the rest of your life, says Beth Jonas, MD, rheumatologist and associate professor of medicine at the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.
Taking your medicine at the dose and frequency prescribed is the best way to successfully treat the disease. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs like Trexall (methotrexate), and biologics such as Humira (adalimumab), help slow down RA-induced joint damage, but don’t always kick in right away.
“Methotrexate can take eight weeks to get a response,” Dr. Jonas says. “Patients really have to stick with their therapies and give them time to work.”
Seek out others living with RA and find support. When you’re first learning to manage rheumatoid arthritis, you may feel overwhelmed, alone, or depressed. Finding a group of people who are also dealing with RA can lift your spirits, plus you can glean great coping strategies from those who have had the disease for a long time.
Ask the staff at your doctor’s office or local hospital about any groups near you, or call your local Arthritis Foundation office for more information. CreakyJoints is an online support community for people living with all forms of arthritis.
“If you meet someone who’s had the disease for a while and has an active, productive life, it’s helpful to see that,” Jonas says. “They’re out there, and it’s a very common disease.”
Cultivate new healthy habits to stay well despite RA. When you’re dealing with RA pain, exercise may seem like the last thing you want to do. But regular physical activity can help you increase — all important to maintaining maximum function.
If you’re overweight, exercise can also help you shed extra pounds. “If you maintain a healthy body weight, you won’t stress your joints as much,” Jonas says. Try to exercise more when your RA symptoms are at a minimum, and dial it back when the pain flares up.
Eating a sensible RA diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is also a must, not only for weight loss but for overall health, too.
“We encourage patients to eat healthy and not overdo it on sweets or high-cholesterol foods,” says Jonathan Samuels, MD, rheumatologist and associate professor of medicine at the Center for Musculoskeletal Care at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
Ask your doctors about other health screenings. Having rheumatoid arthritis puts you at risk for osteoporosis, heart disease, and other medical conditions.
You may want to ask your doctor about getting a bone-density test, which detects low bone mass and can predict your chance of developing bone fractures. Having RA also increases the risk for heart disease, so screening for early signs of coronary trouble is important.
“Anyone with RA should have their cholesterol checked,” Dr. Samuels says. “You should also check blood pressure, and tell your doctor about symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath.”
Prioritize sleep, so you can help ease daily pain. Turns out, your mother was right about sleep. It's always a must for good health, and sleeping well when you have RA is especially important.
Getting 8 to 10 hours of shut-eye a night, plus naps during the day, if needed, can prevent RA flare-ups and help you recover from them more quickly. Plus, aching joints may seem even more painful if you’re tired.
“If you’re not well rested, you’re not going to be able to cope with pain, dysfunction, and all the other things that come with RA,” Jonas says.
Obtain assistive devices. If the RA is caught in the early stages, you probably won’t need any special medical equipment.
But if you weren't diagnosed until the RA reached a more advanced stage, you might benefit from a cane or devices to assist with everyday tasks, like opening jars or typing.
“It might be good to get a physical or occupational therapy evaluation,” Jonas says. “Sometimes therapists will make assistive devices or prescribe specific ones.” Ask your doctor for a referral or recommendation for a therapist. Being proactive about your health can help you slow down the effects of RA, rather than letting RA slow you down.
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