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Managing Rheumatologic Conditions

Two seniors embracing each otherNot only can you live with arthritis and other rheumatologic conditions, but you can also live well with them. There are many things you can do to reduce the severity of your symptoms.

Here are 14 suggestions to help you become active in the management of your illness. Try them out — we think you will be surprised at how much your quality of life and well-being will improve.


1. Listen to your body, and don't wait to see your doctor.

Excessive pain, stiffness and especially joint swelling are not necessarily a part of growing older. If you experience these unexplained symptoms in or around a joint, muscle, skin or other part of your body for more than six weeks, you need to see a doctor. Make sure you get a specific diagnosis, because there are many  different types of arthritis and other rheumatologic conditions, and each may be treated differently.


2. Start now.

Don't procrastinate or wait to see the doctor because you don't have the time, or because you think your symptoms will go away on their own, or because you are afraid of what you might find out. It is more likely that the sooner you receive an accurate diagnosis, the more quickly you will feel better.

In formulating a management plan, your doctor may recommend medication, specific therapy techniques and exercises, or even lifestyle changes. These may include weight management, dietary planning, exercise options, the proper use of heat and other techniques that may prevent further damage. Some of these changes are easy to accomplish, but others are more challenging and take a sustained effort over long periods of time. Whatever your doctor recommends, it is important that you work together as a team.


3. Stay active.

Exercise is very important for staying healthy and in managing your arthritis or other rheumatologic condition. Exercise may reduce your pain, reduce muscle fatigue, increase the range of motion in your joints, increase your flexibility, help keep off excess weight and, hopefully, make you feel better overall. Stronger muscles can actually slow the cartilage damage associated with degenerative joint disease. Talk to your doctor to see where you can get information on exercises and programs that will be good for you. Remember to consult your doctor before starting any new exercise program.


4. Maintain a healthy weight.

Talk to your doctor about what weight is healthy for you, and then figure out how to get there and stay there. Extra pounds put more stress on many joints and increase the amount of pain. Excess weight may increase your risk of developing gout and can make osteoarthritis worse. Furthermore, obesity has been linked to other serious health concerns like high blood pressure and cardiopulmonary disease — complications you don't need.


5. Get your "Vitamin C Power."

While you're staying active and watching your weight, try incorporating a lot of citrus fruits into your diet. Antioxidants such as vitamin C may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, which may be increased in patients with chronic inflammatory illnesses.


6. Get strong and stay strong with calcium.

Enrich your diet with high-calcium foods, and you will make your bones and joints stronger, thereby reducing your risk of developing osteoporosis. Dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream are good sources of calcium (be careful about overdoing the calories). Broccoli and some fish, such as salmon, are good low-fat sources of calcium. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about whether or not you should be taking calcium supplements and which ones are best for you.


7. Get the most out of your medication.

There are many drugs approved by the FDA (and more are on the way) for rheumatoid arthritis, and other rheumatologic conditions. If the medication you're on is causing side effects, or isn't working as well as you think it should be, talk to your doctor about other options. But in the meantime, always take your medication exactly as your doctor prescribed. Never stop taking a medication on your own. Sometimes it takes weeks or even longer for certain medicines to start working, and some side effects will lessen over time. Always ask your doctor if you have any questions about your medications.

It is also extremely important to tell your doctor about every other medication or supplement you're taking — prescription and over-the-counter. Drug interactions do happen and can be serious. Your doctor needs to know about everything you put in your body — even if it is a supplement that you consider mild or benign.


8. Work smarter, not harder.

Is your job aggravating your condition or making your symptoms worse? If so, it is important for you to discuss these issues with your supervisor or manager. There are ways to make the workplace more joint and muscle friendly.


9. Learn how to take time for yourself.

Give yourself a break and take a vacation. Having arthritis or another rheumatologic condition doesn't mean you can't travel to all those great places you've been hoping to visit. Just make sure to be prepared before you go. Don't forget to pack extra medication, your insurance and doctor information, and a really comfortable pair of shoes. Bring along a travel companion, and share the fun and excitement!

However, don't think that vacation is the only time for you to rest and relax! You should find time every day to rest and relax. One good way to do this is to take a hot bath or shower before bedtime. Warm water can help relieve aching joints, ease muscle tension and relax your whole body and mind for a good night's sleep.


10. Plant a garden.

Planting and growing your own flower and/or herb/vegetable garden can be a very relaxing and rewarding experience. Not only will you get to enjoy the ‘fruits' of your effort, but playing in the dirt is also fun, relaxing and good therapy for sore hands and arms. For added comfort, and to avoid putting stress on your lower back and knees, try wearing kneepads.


11. Protect yourself before you have fun in the sun.

Wearing sunscreen (SPF 15 or better), sunglasses and a hat with a visor are wise choices if you plan on spending time outdoors. This is very important, because some rheumatologic conditions, and some medications, can make you more sensitive to harmful UV rays. Be sure to let your physician know you are using sunscreen regularly since this may lower your Vitamin D levels, which can easily be measured to determine if supplements are indicated.


12. Take control of your mind and mood.

Our minds and bodies are connected, and each influences the other. It is natural to feel down or sad sometimes. But it's not okay to be depressed and anxious most of the time. Being happy is important to managing your arthritis or other rheumatologic condition. If you feel anxious or depressed, get on the phone and talk to a friend. Or, get out of the house and go for a walk. Change your surroundings; put on your favorite music; and try smiling. Fill your life with as much laughter as you can — it is good for your state of mind, relaxes tense muscles and actually helps your immune system function more properly. If you do feel down more than you feel up, be sure to talk about it with your doctor and discuss your options of how to kick the blues. You deserve to be happy — make it happen.


13. Nurture your relationships.

Besides our own health and wellness, friends and family are arguably the most important things in our lives. Make sure you're spending enough quality time with those people who are important to you. Don't let common excuses like, "I'm too busy," or "I can't think of anything to do" get in your way. Start a book club; join an exercise or walking group; learn how to cook something new and throw a dinner party — any excuse is a good one if it allows you to spend time with someone you appreciate and enjoy. Also, try to be open to making new friends — it’s fun to share our experiences with someone new and to learn something about that person, too.


14. Learn a little, gain a lot.

Get online, go to the library, request additional information; whatever you choose, take some time to learn about your disease from credible sources. Doing so will alleviate some of the anxiety that can go along with having a rheumatologic condition. Learning more about your disease will make you feel more in control and active in the management of your symptoms. It will also help reassure you that you're not alone. Then, try telling a friend what you've learned — you may be surprised at how much interest your friend shows!


This information has been approved by Richard T. Meehan, MD, FACP, February 2017