Donna Schwartz, a 62-year-old retiree, has the dream snowbird life. She produces and directs comedies at a local theater in Delray Beach, Fla., plays tennis, goes for long leisurely walks almost daily, and drives up to Long Island, N.Y., around the holidays to spend time with her grandchildren.
But Schwartz’s life wasn’t so fulfilling several years back. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in 1985, the New York native was forced to sell her packaging company and had resigned herself to spending the rest of her days in a wheelchair due to this disabling, crippling disease.
One of the hardest things about having RA is that you never know when you may have a flare of symptoms. If you've gone a long time without one, it can come as a shock. During flares, some people feel frustrated and wonder if they did something wrong.
So let's clear the air at the start. No one can predict when and why flares occur. It's not your fault. The best way to keep flares at bay is to take your RA medications consistently. But there are some things you can do to reduce the odds of a flare...
“It was like hitting a stop sign,” she recalls. “My life almost came to a screeching halt.” Since then, she has tried just about every drug that has come down the pike. “Some things did work for a while, and then I guess your body gets used to it and we would go on to the next thing.”
Like Schwartz, many of the 2 million people with RA, an autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation of the joints, have trouble performing activities most of us take for granted, such as opening a jar or going for a walk. The disease happens when the immune system engages in friendly fire against its own joints. The result is chronic pain, loss of function, and possibly eventual disability.
Rheumatoid Arthritis: What’s New?
That prognosis is changing. As a result of new therapies, better use of existing treatments, and earlier diagnosis, many people with RA are now able to enjoy an improved quality of life. Still, a recent survey of 512 people with RA shows that 75% of them still struggle with pain, stiffness, fatigue, and swelling on a daily basis, and 66% say these symptoms limit their lives.
It doesn’t have to be this way. “The changes occurring in RA over the last decade or two have been nothing short of miraculous,” says James O’Dell, MD, a rheumatologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. “We have learned how to better diagnose RA early and how important it is to get our patients on disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs [DMARDs] earlier,” says O’Dell. DMARD is an umbrella term for drugs that can slow or halt the course of inflammatory conditions such as RA. It includes older, more conventional drugs such as methotrexate as well as a new subset of drugs known as biologics.
“Our goal is not just to make people feel better and give them a few less swollen joints. Our goal is remission,” he says.
And the new approach is working, he says. “In 40 percent of people we are getting there, and in another 40 percent we are getting very close.”