By Mariah Leach, as told to Kara Mayer Robinson
As the founder of the website Mamas Facing Forward, I work with a large community of moms and moms-to-be from all over the world, offering a platform where they can ask questions and share advice, experiences, and support.
I also speak at webinars and summits, and I’m continually looking for new avenues to create more resources and support for parents living with chronic illness.
Between my advocacy work and my personal experience living with RA, I’ve learned a lot about how to live well with RA.
How do you manage pain, stiffness, and other symptoms?
If you have RA, you may feel joint pain, tenderness, swelling, stiffness, and fatigue. But the physical challenges of RA vary from person to person. For each person, they also vary from day to day and from month to month.
In my experience, the most effective way to manage pain and other RA symptoms is to work as a team with your rheumatologist to find the right combination of medications.
If you feel your doctor isn't listening to your concerns or taking your life goals into account, find one who does.
It can sometimes be a frustratingly long process to find a medication combination that works, and sometimes its effectiveness changes and you need to start the search again. But if you can find an effective combination of medications, it can be life-changing.
Heat and ice can sometimes be useful to manage symptoms. You can also try low-impact movement.
There are many products out there that can help you deal with pain and stiffness. I personally rely on knee and wrist braces when necessary. I also have a tool that helps me unbuckle my children's car seats and various RA-friendly kitchen tools.
How do you manage fatigue?
It’s really important to get to know your body and your limitations. After much trial and error, I now know when my body needs a break or when it might be worthwhile to push a little bit harder.
Try to come up with a daily routine that allows you to succeed, not crash. For example, my husband helps get the kids dressed and get started on breakfast so I can move a little more slowly and do some stretching in the morning. After I get moving, I'm able to manage the kids.
When I'm really feeling sore and worn out, I swear by a hot Epsom salt bath.
Do diet and exercise help with RA?
Some people have had success using diet to help with RA. But of all the various diets I’ve tried, I’ve found zero relation to my RA symptoms. It's something worth looking into if it interests you, but keep in mind that this is unique to each person and what one person swears by might not be effective for you.
I do find that staying active is really important for managing my RA. I don't always have time for formal exercise, so sometimes this is as simple as walking around the block while my kids ride their bikes. I also really enjoy cycling and swimming as low-impact options.
Does stress affect RA?
I definitely struggle more with my RA when my stress levels are high. This is an area where I feel a hot Epsom salt bath has double benefits. The heat and salts help my joints and muscle aches, and the quiet time to myself helps me relax.
I also try to practice gratitude on a daily basis. Focusing on the things that I love and appreciate helps me remember all the good things in my life.
How do you build a strong support system?
If you have a partner, try to work together as a team. Help your partner truly understand the impact of your disease. Remember that your disease impacts their life, as well.
My husband and I try to treat my RA as our issue. It’s something that we can figure out how to deal with as a team.
Look for a support community to connect to others who are living with RA or chronic illness. There’s a lot of value in having someone who understands what you’re going through and talking to someone who has been in your shoes.
Even if you only connect online and you never meet them in real life, connecting with the chronic illness community can give you recommendations to solve practical problems, refer you to resources to help answer questions, validate your feelings, and provide support, encouragement, and hope.
What’s your advice for rising above and thriving with RA?
An RA diagnosis will certainly change your life, but living with RA doesn't mean giving up on your life goals. If something is really important to you, you can still find a path toward those dreams.
For me, it was finishing law school and graduate school and starting a family. Was it a different path than I imagined? Yes. Did it require support and advice from medical professionals? Yes. But I achieved the life goals I set out for myself. Honestly, I think I may appreciate these successes even more because of the difficulties in getting them.
Photo Credit: FreshSplash / Getty Images
Mariah Leach, patient advocate, founder, Mamas Facing Forward, Denver.