Rheumatoid arthritis, which is often called RA, is an autoimmune disease. Your immune system is supposed to protect your health by attacking bacteria and viruses that could make you ill. However, with rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system is attacking itself, specifically your joints. This abnormal immune response results in inflammation that can damage joints and even organs. Early diagnosis and treatment is crucial in preventing joint destruction and organ damage.
About 1.5 million people in the U.S. have rheumatoid arthritis. About three times more women than men have it. In women, it often begins between 30 and 60 years old; in men, it usually triggers at an older age. The severity varies between different people, and symptoms can change each day. Sudden increases in symptoms are called “flares.” These flares can last days or months. Typical rheumatoid arthritis symptoms include pain, fatigue, and swollen, reddened joints accompanied by long periods of stiffness in the joint in the mornings. The joints frequently affected are the wrist and hand. If a joint on one side of the body is affected, usually the same joint on the other side is also affected.
There is not currently a cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but there are medications to help reduce the inflammation, ease the symptoms, and slow the progression. For best results, a physician should monitor the inflammation and flares with exams and blood tests to determine how your medications are working. The goal is remission, where you have very little inflammation.
Self-management is very important with rheumatoid arthritis. Staying physically active is the key to keeping your joints flexible. Too little movement can lead to joint stiffness. You need strong muscles to help protect your joints.
When you are in pain and your joints are stiff, exercise is probably the last thing you want to do, but when you have rheumatoid arthritis, regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to take care of yourself and your joints. In the long run, regular exercise can actually reduce overall pain. Exercise strengthens bones, which is especially important with rheumatoid arthritis. This is especially important when you frequently take steroids for flares, as thinning bones and osteoporosis are side effects of long-term use of corticosteroids.
With rheumatoid arthritis, your exercise routine should include aerobic exercise, resistance work, and stretching. Recommended aerobic exercises for people with rheumatoid arthritis include lower-impact activities like walking, swimming, water aerobics, biking, or using an elliptical machine. Resistance exercise can be with weights, elastic tubing and bands, small balls, etc. Stretching is important to maintain range of motion around your joints. Exercises to probably avoid are those that put a lot of stress on a joint such as high impact aerobics (jogging or running) or heavy lifting. Before starting an exercise program, it is important to talk to your rheumatologist or physician. He/she can suggest a safe exercise program for you. This may include working with a physical therapist or a certified personal trainer.
Janet Hunt is a Certified Personal Trainer and can be reached at 256-614-3530 to schedule an appointment.
By: Janet Hunt