photo of woman stepping from bed onto floor

By Leah Parker, as told to Kara Mayer Robinson

I live in Charlotte, NC, and I’m a nurse practitioner. I’ve been living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) for 11 years. It’s not always easy, but I’ve gotten better at managing the ups and downs. I’ve learned a few tricks that help.

Mornings tend to be most challenging for me. I often wake up stiff and uncomfortable. To manage this, I make sure I give myself plenty of time to get up slowly and stretch, without feeling rushed.

Another big challenge is fatigue. When you have RA, there’s a constant feeling of fatigue that’s not always easy to push through. I often feel like I’m always tired, no matter much sleep I’ve had.

I try to stick to a consistent sleep schedule. Waking up and going to bed around the same every day helps. I also try to drink plenty of water. I’ve noticed that if I’m dehydrated, I feel even more fatigued.

I try to have a steady daily routine and I think that helps. Working in health care, I’ve had many different shifts over the years. I’ve found that having a consistent schedule is imperative.

I’ve learned to make simple adjustments to make my day-to-day life with RA easier, especially on days when I’m not feeling well. I try to set myself up for success.

If I go to the store, I try to park a little closer to the entrance. When I travel, I usually request a hotel room on the first floor so I don’t have to walk as far after a long day.

I’ve also learned not to push myself too much and to rest when I need it. These are two things I learned the hard way. In the past, I overdid it and my body paid the price.

I’m big on using traditional medicine and holistic treatments to keep my disease under control. I believe both have a place.  I also take a lot of supplements that are anti-inflammatory in nature, like turmeric.

I really like essential oils. I use them topically and add them to a diffuser if I have an achy joint or if I’m feeling stressed from the day. If the oils don’t help, I’ll turn to a mild pain medication like acetaminophen.

I’ve found my diet to be a very important part of keeping my RA under control. I try to avoid foods that increase inflammation, like sugar, dairy, gluten, and processed foods. If I make a mistake and eat those things, I feel pain immediately.

I also try to do light exercise every day to keep my body moving.

When you have a chronic illness, it’s important to take care of your mental health. I try to manage stress. When I feel overwhelmed, I diffuse oils, listen to music, or listen to audiobooks.

One of the biggest challenges of living with RA is convincing and reminding those around me that I actually have an illness that causes a lot of pain, because on the outside I look quite healthy.

I recently saw a new hairstylist at my salon. She made a joke that I missed a lot of the gray hairs on the back of my head. Since I have RA, it hurts to lift my arms for an extended amount of time, so when I dye my hair, I do it quickly and often miss certain spots.

The stylist even brought over another hairstylist to see the patch of grays I’d missed. They both joked and laughed, unaware of the reason. Had she known I have RA, she probably wouldn’t have done that.

Sometimes my children forget I have pain and get upset when I need to rest. Most of the time my family is extremely understanding, but at times they forget I have RA. They think I’m healthy because I take very good care of myself. On those days, I gently remind them what I’m dealing with and they understand.

It’s also tricky having an invisible illness when you’re a very independent person. I’m not the type of person who wants sympathy, and I probably push myself more than I should. I just refuse to give in to it.

But I do lean on my family. They’re a really good support system. And I have my “fur baby.” Her name is Luna, and she’s a wonderful support dog.

Find a doctor who truly cares about you and will listen to you. Work with them to find a treatment that will give you a good, comfortable quality of life.

Don’t ever give up. We all have so much to offer the world.

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Photo Credit: Artfoliophoto / Getty Images


Leah Parker, Charlotte, NC.