When I first saw Lady GaGa’s story title ‘Hip Pain Can’t Stop Me,’ on the cover of Arthritis Magazine, the doctor and long-time athlete in me assumed it was just a common over use injury. As I skimmed through the article I quickly connected with GaGa – I had once suffered from debilitating joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis (RA) too! I’m one of the lucky 33% of patients who went into (what I hope to be is) remission without recurrent relapse. But, being pain free did not come without a price.
While I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy, when my symptoms began, I would wake up an hour earlier than everyone else because it took so long for my joints to become “unstuck” and simple activities were so hard. Turning on the sink, holding a brush, opening my room door, tying shoes – all challenging tasks. I found work-arounds but one thing was guaranteed with my RA – each day was unpredictable and I would complete as many tasks as possible before the sun set because that’s when my body would start to shutdown on me. I was always tired. I was depressed. Undoubtedly these were the hardest two years of my life. I refused to give up on myself. I read everything about RA. What could I do for myself? It’s no secret that autoimmune diseases have a very nebulous course. I chose to make some healthy changes to limit my symptoms.
GaGa describes the benefits of heat and cold therapy to manage her symptoms. While the research does not show a clear benefit in RA, every patient with pain finds different treatments beneficial and so did I. I encourage anyone in pain to try different things to find what works best for YOU. It’s simplest to start with natural ways. I would say there are two goals when choosing natural remedies: 1) To optimize your daily function, and 2) To avoid prescription medications due to the serious side effects. The classic RA patient experiences pain and swelling in multiple joints that worsens as the day progresses. It can be very hard for busy, high-energy people to adjust to how much you have to slow down. Lady GaGa describes cancelling many concerts due to her pain. I empathize for her. While I’m not a Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter, I had my own lofty dreams.
I think a natural way to manage symptoms is to just listen to your body day-to-day. You have to know there will be days when bare minimum activity is okay. Then, there will be the good days! Oh, the good days! These days you do EVERYTHING! I also found that working out everyday was very beneficial. If it was only 30 minutes of walking and stretching, I still did it. Of course on less painful days I did more. My ligaments became very prone to over stretching and injury so I avoided lifting heavy weights but used light weights and focused on increasing my heart rate – this was enough to keep me fit and keep me happy. I found a lot of pain relief with massage, as well. I couldn’t handle deep tissue but gentle massage was very helpful. In addition to heat, exercise, and massage I focused on changing my diet. This meant avoiding foods that were known classically to illicit an inflammatory response: processed foods, refined sugars, salt, and dairy. I already didn’t drink alcohol or eat fried foods but those are other things to avoid. My final tip would be to get enough sleep. It’s tempting to avoid it because you honestly feel tired all the time, but I found my symptoms definitely eased up after a nap or a begrudgingly chosen long nights rest.
Like Lady GaGa, you can surely pop in your infrared sauna and still be functional enough to kill it at the Super Bowl, but it’s important to understand keeping symptoms at bay requires commitment to a healthy lifestyle 365 days a year. I’m lucky to be pain free for several years but I stick to these natural remedies in hopes of not triggering my disease. Everyone’s disease severity and symptoms are different so you have to choose what is right for you. Even if you currently take DMARDs and steroids, these natural remedies can ease your symptoms. Speak with your doctor first as what I shared is my own person experience and not medical advice.