FIRST PERSON | Patients who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis (RA) travel a much rougher road than the public realizes, researchers report. My family recently witnessed the severity of RA, which hit us like a tsunami.
Scientists believe that in terms of damage, RA has been overlooked. The reason is media focus on high-profile conditions like cancer and HIV, according to Medical News Today. Mayo Clinic researchers found that 20 percent of patients with this type of arthritis find themselves unable to work two years after diagnosis. After five years, the number rises to 1 in 3. These individuals face a life expectancy shortened by as many as five years. They also have twice the average chance of heart failure and a risk of heart attack 50 percent higher than average.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term disorder characterized by joint inflammation on both sides of the body, states the Cleveland Clinic. However, it can affect other organs such as the eyes, heart, skin, blood, nerves, kidneys, or lungs. One factor that makes it difficult to treat is that the illness affects each individual differently.
Patients most commonly complain of pain in the fingers, wrists, knees, feet, and ankles. Initial symptoms like stiffness and fatigue can be mild. Unfortunately, no single test can prove that a patient has RA. However, two lab studies often useful in putting a name on the disorder are the rheumatoid factor test and the anti-CCP test, according to PubMed Health.
My husband's diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis followed a murky three months filled with sudden exhaustion and swelling in his hands and feet. Excruciating pain came next. Complicating the situation were two negative Lyme disease tests, then a positive Lyme result. Also noted was an RA marker that might represent a false positive. Hubby flew between a rheumatologist and an infectious disease specialist like a ping pong ball.
In the four months since the Lyme disease diagnosis, my husband has completed an extended course of doxycycline. His symptoms continue to worsen, and he's on a pain management plan that apparently isn't (so far) working. He can't open or close his hands completely or do everyday chores. Doctors now believe RA is the culprit and have added a medication to combat joint swelling.
Remaining employed has meant carefully weighing available leave against doctors' appointments and coming home at midday to rest. We wonder each day what the future with this illness will bring.
The Mayo Clinic researchers believe that patients experience the best outcome with a correct diagnosis and early treatment. They advise learning how to protect joints, getting plenty of rest, and taking advantage of proper exercises. They also acknowledge that health care providers need to balance patient complaints of rheumatoid arthritis severity with the side effects of medications like the steroid prednisone.
Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.