When it comes to managing your rheumatoid arthritis (RA), things can turn complicated pretty quickly. Trying to keep track of the pain (when, where, and how badly it hits), the many medicines you may need, and the triggers that cause your RA to flare -- all information that’s crucial to your care -- can feel overwhelming at times.
But several apps for your smartphone or tablet can help. For many of the more than 1.3 million Americans who have RA, they can be a vital part of health care.
"We need to capture what's going on," explains Rajat Bhatt, a rheumatologist in Richmond and Pearland, TX. "Apps are very good at gathering historical data, how the patient is doing between doctor's visits -- not necessarily at the time of the doctor's visit. It's very useful."
A big part of what the apps do is keeping a daily “diary” of your RA. Users put in information, which differs on various apps. But it may include things like the level of pain at any given time, where the pain is, and what medicine you're taking for it. And users share that data with doctors, sometimes directly from the app. That gives everyone a fuller picture of the disease, its effect, and the path forward.
"If we wait until the [doctor's] appointment, the patient could have been having flares but is already feeling better, but that does not mean that there wasn't damage done during the flares," Bhatt says. "If patients are having frequent flares, we might switch therapies to something that is more effective."
The Appeal of Apps
In the old days, before smartphones and instant access to the internet, people with RA had to go with a more old-fashioned way of monitoring their symptoms.
"I wrote it down. I documented it," says Sylvia Faircloth, who was diagnosed with RA in her late 40s and who has been an ambassador for the U.S. Pain Foundation for about 12 years. "They told me it was very important to document, especially with hands, knees, legs. When I saw a difference in this or that, I would document."
The advent of apps has made it easier. With the flash of a thumb or finger, users might be able to tap a graphic to show where the pain is or use a sliding scale to detail how much it hurts. Doctors now can get a much more complete picture of the disease's effect. People with RA, too, have a better understanding.
"It keeps you present to what's going on," Faircloth says. "One of the things I really like is looking back, how many days of the month I felt bad, compared to how many I felt good. I can go back and look at that sometimes and go, 'Wow, March was a bad month. Twenty-two days out of 30 were not good days.'"
Features vary from app to app. Some have medication reminders, some prompt you for an entry, some have links to educational resources and support groups, and others can connect with fitness devices or your doctor's office. But all involve you in your own care.
A few years ago, Ashley Newton was struggling with her RA during a hot, humid, walk-heavy trip to Mexico. The app she was using allowed her to add a note to describe what she was going through, which proved critical in her health assessment when she next saw her rheumatologist.
"When I came back to my doctor, we could kind of look at what my trend was over the past 3 months, and I could articulate, 'Here are the kinds of activities that really caused me these additional problems,'" says Newton, who was diagnosed with RA about 5 years ago. "I really think, because I was tracking and could start to see that pattern emerge … we could make decisions more easily."
Now, before she travels, Newton may consult with her doctor to consider medications that could help prevent, or at least control, RA flare-ups. She says the app she uses -- ArthritisPower, created by the nonprofit group CreakyJoints and the University of Alabama at Birmingham -- has made it easier for her to manage her RA symptoms.
"It's impacted my care already, because it's giving me something hard and fast. It almost feels like I'm equipping myself with evidence," she says. "This gives [my doctors] an actual measure to look at and make a decision."
Faircloth, who uses a couple of apps for her care, also is a big believer in their power.
"With that app, I feel like I have a better grip on my health," she says.
Features to Weigh
Apps that help you deal with the day-to-day management of your RA offer a variety of features. Here are some you may want to look for:
Pain tracker. The most basic function of any RA app is to record pain accurately so your doctor can take the proper steps to manage it. For now, the record-keeping isn't automatic: On their own, apps can't tell where you hurt or how much you hurt. But the best ones have quick, accurate, intuitive ways to record this information, and they allow you to add things that may worsen your pain (like stress, overexertion, infection, and poor sleep).
Medicine tracker. Critical, too, in these apps is a list of the medicines you take. Pairing that info with your pain tracker can help doctors decide on treatments.
Education. Some apps have links to help you learn more about RA and its treatment. They may also offer tips and advice on how to handle flare-ups.
Support. Need a sympathetic ear -- someone who has been through what you have? Some apps can point you to local or national support groups.
Apps to Consider
Most RA apps are free to download and use, but some have ads. Most are available for both Android and Apple devices, through Google Play or the App Store. Here's a sample:
ArthritisPower. Track symptoms and meds, fill out surveys, take part in trials, and share info with doctors and researchers in a patient-focused app that aids in the overall fight against RA.
cliexa-RA. This graphic app allows you to map where your pain is, track your medicines, and get an accurate, complete report for your next trip to your doctor.
Manage My Pain. Describe your pain in less than 30 seconds (what’s it like, where it is, how long it lasts, things that make it worse) for a complete report (with graphics) to share with your doctor.
My Pain Diary. This app tracks your pain history (including a color-coded calendar for good and bad days) and your medicines, fetches weather data, and prepares a PDF for your doctor. It comes only in iOS, an Apple operating system.
myVectra. This app makes a total picture of your pain, with graphics that zero in on different body parts (Which toe joint hurts?) and shows you how things have changed since your last doctor visit.
PainScale. This app has a searchable library of free content to help you find pain relief, along with a pain tracker, the ability to set reminders, daily health tips, and integration with Google Fit.
RA Monitor. In addition to pain and medicine tracking, and the ability to share with a doctor, this app can help connect you directly with your doctor’s office or support groups.
Track + React. This app not only offers a daily pain diary, it helps you understand which activities affect your pain, and it offers advice from experts at the Arthritis Foundation.