I wanted to share my personal success story with exercise and rheumatoid arthritis. It has now been 13 years since my diagnosis and exercise has played a very significant role in my disease management.
As the daughter of two avid runners, I grew up running, running, running. In high school, I competed in cross-country, track, and orienteering. I continued to run in college, but chose not to compete in Boston U's athletics initially. I intended to start sophomore year after becoming accustomed to college life.
During the winter of my freshman year, I noticed I was having some difficulty with small tasks, like flipping on lightswitches, typing on a keyboard, and walking around in bare feet. I didn't think much of it, until one January Sunday morning when I stepped out of bed and literally couldn't walk. I felt this ridiculous pain in all the joints of my feet, so standing and walking were incredibly painful. Confused and in tears, I got myself to the ER of Mass General Hospital, where they did a multitude of tests and sent me home without a diagnosis, but in slightly less pain. Days later, I followed up at the Student Health Center, where I received results indicating rheumatoid arthritis, and was instructed to go to a rheumatologist.
My visit to the rheumatologist was depressing. I was 18 years old, surrounded by old patients in the waiting room as well as old people magazines. This wasn't me! The rheumatologist confirmed the rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis and prescribed me Celebrex to take as needed.
Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the joint linings causing painful swelling. Over long periods of time, the inflammation associated with RA can cause bone erosion and joint deformity. My arthritis manifests itself in my wrists, knuckles, elbows, shoulders, and the joints of my feet. Different areas are affected at different times.
I returned to Boston and continued with school. I had to start running less and took up swimming and limited weightlifting. The weightlifting was tricky, because my fingers were frequently very swollen. I was happy to be learning more and more about fitness, so I could make the appropriate modifications to avoid damaging the inflamed joints further. I started to notice that exercise helped decrease my inflammation and pain.
4 years after my diagnosis, the pain and swelling started to return. I had become wrapped up in my senior year of college, had been exercising less, and had gained 20 lbs. Research has since shown that body fat increases inflammation. My rheumatologist then recommended prednisone and methotrexate, very strong medications that required regular liver blood tests. The medication only helped for a few months before my symptoms returned, and my rheumatologist wanted to add more medications to my treatment plan.
I thought back to when I had managed to keep pain at bay in the past and made a conscious effort to get ample sleep, increase my exercise frequency, and improve my eating habits. I didn't fill my next prescription of prednisone or methotrexate. After about a month of modifying my lifestyle, I noticed a remarkable decrease in my joint pain and inflammation, despite not taking any medication. I later told my rheumatologist, who was supportive, as long as I was managing my joint pain.
Since then, for the past 9 years, I've managed to stay medication free. My current doctor insists that it is because of my active lifestyle, and I agree. Working as a trainer allows me to keep a moderate activity level all day long, so that my joints don't get a chance to stiffen up. My exercise program decreases the inflammation in my joints on a daily basis.
Although I have been active since a young age, it has at times been frustrating and a real struggle. There are still some days when certain joints will be in so much pain that I'm reluctant to get out of bed. However, I know that once I start moving, the pain will decrease; and once I exercise, it will be almost gone. It's doubtful whether I'll ever be fully "pain free," but exercise helps me have a better outcome than anyone I know with RA. The genetics we're dealt don't have to determine our future. We're all working with the body we've got and trying to make the best of it.
Have you had a similar "success story" with exercise and a health condition? Please share your story with me or contact me if you'd like to improve your health.