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Rheumatoid Arthritis, Work, and Disability

Understanding the impact RA can have on the workplace and your career.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nancy Hardin, age 71, of Dyersburg, Tenn., was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) 11 years ago.  A few months after her diagnosis, she quit her teaching job at a local high school because she could barely walk. Then she started taking the biologic drug Remicade and became nearly symptom-free. Nevertheless, she decided that going back to the classroom would wear her out. She did, though, become a volunteer translator for local Spanish-speaking immigrants and a member of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. "To tell you the truth," she says with a laugh, "I work almost as much as I did when I was teaching. My doctor thinks my disease is in remission."

Hardin's working experience is not atypical. Close to one out of every three employees with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) leaves the workforce. That statistic may sound daunting, but the percentage of people with RA who quit working because of the condition is nearly half of what it was just 20 years ago. What's more, Hayes Wilson, MD, chief of rheumatology at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, tells WebMD that fewer people experience the same level of disability that once was common with RA. "Not only have I seen more people keep working" he says, "I've also seen people who've gone from being almost crippled to leading normal lives."

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What has brought about such a dramatic change in RA's impact on people's ability to work? One factor, doctors say, is the use of newer, more effective medications that slow the progress of the autoimmune disease and often suppress its symptoms. Biologic medicines, such as the one Hardin takes, and disease-modifying antirheumatics like methotrexate have made it possible for people to go about their day at work with fewer problems. Still, though, it isn't easy to manage a job when you have rheumatoid arthritis.

That's because even with the newer, more expensive therapies, people with RA may still experience symptoms like fatigue and pain. And these symptoms can significantly interfere with job performance. If you have RA, here is information experts shared with WebMD that you can use to reduce the effect RA can have on your working life.

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