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Practical Tips for Living with Arthritis.1

artist Dorothy Gauvin

 What Is Crippling Arthritis and How Can You Deal With It?

Rheumatoid Arthritis is known as Crippling Arthritis for good reason. It's name is shortened by medical folk to 'RA' but I know it as 'The Beast.' The definition, history and diagnostic signs make up one part of the story...
Starting at the beginning is always the best way to tackle a complex subject, I reckon. So, if you bear with me, I'll tell this one by breaking it into its two parts: (a) describing the condition and (b) sharing tried and tested ways to deal with it.

1. What it is:

    Rheumatoid Arthritis is an inflammatory disease, considered to be an auto-immune disorder, in which the body's defence system mistakenly attacks its own cells as if they were foreign invaders. Areas most commonly affected are the connective tissues that act as 'shock absorbers' in the joints. Over time, these can include the jaws, spine, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers, hips, knees, ankles and toes. As it is a systemic disorder, R.A. can also damage the organs, including heart, lungs, eyes and skin.

You can see why someone like me - having lived through forty years with RA - calls it 'The Beast.'

    It is the second most common form of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common. Other types include gout, lupus, or fibromyalgia. In the 2007-09 period, about 50 million adults in the United States were diagnosed with one of the many forms of arthritis. Of these, an estimated 1.5 million adults had rheumatoid arthritis. In the same period, 400,000 Australians were affected by the disease. RA is three times more likely to occur in females and can have its onset at any age, even in toddlers, but most often starts in the 35-64 year age groups.

When my specialist asked, a few years ago, if I'd attend a presentation to students at the local university campus, he told me: 'These new graduates will never see hands like yours in the course of their medical careers.'

2. History of RA

Because the first medical description of the condition dates to 1864, it has been thought of as a modern disease. But in 1483, the Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli made a painting known as 'Portrait of a Youth' in which the young male subject shows the distinctive deformities of RA in his hand. Some may say there is room for doubt since the portrayal is 'only a painting.'

From a personal viewpoint, I can add my recollection of embarrassment about a similar 'mistake.' After moving to my State capital, I entered an Art contest in which a painting of mine was awarded First Prize. The judge was tactful enough to wait until after the presentation to express his surprise at a blunder I'd made. In my picture, the main figure held an umbrella by a painted hand with the same deformed index finger of my own left hand. In absence of the model, I'd used my own hand's reflection in my studio mirror, painting what I'd become so used to that it no longer registered with me as abnormal.

Botticelli is famed for his draughtsmanship, his drawing cannot be faulted, so his depiction of the young R.A. sufferer must be taken as evidence of a much earlier origin than previously accepted for this wretched condition.

3. Diagnosis:

The first signs will differ in every person but the most usual are: morning stiffness and or pain in the wrists or hands on waking. Typically, the fingers will be swollen and may be resistant to uncurling from the palms. Both sides of the body are usually involved.

The first step is, of course, a visit to your GP. She or he may order blood tests that will show if you need to consult a specialist. If the results are bad news, your doctor will refer you to a rheumatologist. The good news is: really effective disease-modifying-anti-rheumatic-drugs, known as DMARDs, are making the lives of those newly diagnosed with this disorder far more comfortable than in the past. Because I have to type this with two 'fingers' made from rubber-tipped pencils held in my 'fists,' I will have to stop here. But I promise that in the next article I will share many tips on overcoming the obstacles thrown up by RA that I've discovered during my long acquaintance with 'The Beast.' ©Dorothy Gauvin