Find out why giving your doctor the details about your rheumatoid arthritis pain—where it hurts and what it feels like—is key to effective treatment.
Ginger MacCutcheon recently started doing yoga, runs a thriving pet boutique and pet-sitting business and loves the lift she gets from taking her dogs to visit residents in a nearby long-term care facility. Yet a few years ago, this 53-year-old entrepreneur from Independence, OH, almost saw her own prized independence slip through her fingers.
It started when she began noticing that getting up in the morning had become a whole lot harder. So is this what old age is like? she asked herself. Everything hurts—no wonder everyone complains! Like many people who live with pain, Ginger simply ignored it at first.
But then the mornings went from difficult to unbearable. “It got to the point that I had to get up at 4:30 AM so I could be functioning by 8 or 9,” she says. “I started wearing clothes I could slip on because I couldn’t do buttons anymore. And I would wear slip-on shoes because I couldn’t tie my shoelaces.”
Her biggest regret looking back is that she wasn’t clear with her doctors. “I wish I had mentioned how tired I was,” she says. “You have to tell your doctor exactly where your pain is, what it feels like and how detrimental it is to your life. If you don’t tell them, they have no way of knowing.”
After a few years of fumbling through being misdiagnosed, Ginger was finally able to get the answers she needed. Turned out her joint pain was the result of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that destroys joint tissue.
What makes joints vulnerable
Knees, elbows, ankles, knuckles…anywhere in the body where two bones touch end-to-end is a joint. When healthy, a joint is full of soft tissue (cartilage) and fluid, which cushion the bones to reduce friction. Over the years, however, simple wear and tear can cause cartilage to become thinner and erode, leaving bones with less and less protection. Accidents and injuries can also cause damage to joints. But in some cases, pain and discomfort are symptoms of inflammation related to autoimmune diseases like RA or psoriatic arthritis.
A closer look at RA and joints
In RA, pain occurs when the body’s immune system starts attacking itself, mostly in the synovial joints—the knees, fingers, wrists, hips and shoulders—which are enclosed in a fluid-containing capsule. Think of your painful joint as the site of a 24/7 traffic jam—with blood cells running haywire, causing stiffness, swelling and inflammation.
Eventually, all that extra activity breaks down the tissues around your joints. This can destroy parts of your synovium and/or cartilage (see “Why joints start hurting”), causing intense pain. “The first thing I asked my rheumatologist was, ‘Am I going to be crippled?’” remembers Ginger. “My pain had gotten to the point where I thought I was going to have to use a cane.” Luckily, effective treatment has kept Ginger walking without having to lean on anything.
Working with your doctor helps
Ginger is feeling pretty great these days, and she gets a large part of the credit. The reason? She built a solid, trusting relationship with her doctor, being frank about her symptoms and providing details (like what her pain felt like, what might have triggered it and what might make it feel better) that helped him determine the treatment path that made sense for her. Plus, she wasn’t afraid to experiment. “I tried every treatment my doctor suggested, giving each one a fair chance, until I found the one that brought me relief.”
Today, in addition to following her treatment plan, she has a few pampering tricks: “I’ve always liked Dead Sea salts, so I do a bath with those and I feel like a million bucks afterward,” she says. “And sometimes, to forget my pain, I take a drive to these pretty waterfalls that are nearby. I recently told my doctor he saved my life—he gave me my life back.”