Patient’s story: Managing the ups and downs of rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition affecting at least 1.3 million Americans

Image source: Thinkstock

Image source: Thinkstock

In 1977, Nancy Prideaux, a freshman at The University of Texas at Austin, was hit with what she described as a “baffling illness.”

Nancy Prideaux

Nancy Prideaux

“I awoke to morning stiffness that felt like I had danced on burning coals all night, accompanied by unexplained flu-like symptoms,” Prideaux said. “When I returned home, both index fingers were swollen twice their normal size.”

The condition ultimately forced her to reduce her course load and visit multiple doctors, including a Houston rheumatologist, before she was diagnosed with the condition she has suspected — rheumatoid arthritis.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition in which the body’s immune defenses lose their “tolerance” of one’s own body and actually “attack” the joints. The condition can cause chronic inflammation which can lead to damage in joints, but also lead to abnormalities in heart, nerve, blood vessel and lung function.

At least 1.3 million Americans have RA, which is the most common type of autoimmune arthritis.

It’s unclear what causes rheumatoid arthritis, and there is no cure. It can affect men and women of any age, but health professionals agree that early intervention is key to preventing permanent joint damage.

Expert help for rheumatoid arthritis

A rheumatologist has the expertise to correctly diagnose rheumatoid arthritis and develop a care plan using the most up-to-date treatments.

Dr. Monty Tew, a rheumatologist at The Austin Diagnostic Clinic, now helps guide Prideaux’s care. He says rheumatoid arthritis often begins with pain, swelling and stiffness in joints, particularly in the small joints of the hands and wrists. It can also affect the upper neck, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles and toes.

“This pain and stiffness leads to permanent damage and deformity of joints if left untreated,” Dr. Tew said. “Before effective treatments were available, most patients with RA became disabled within five to 10 years of onset.”

If left untreated, rheumatoid arthritis is also a risk factor for coronary artery disease.

How is RA treated?

Treatment may include exercise, rest, medications, joint protection, patient education and sometimes surgery.

Dr. Tew says modern treatments for rheumatoid arthritis recognize that permanent joint damage can occur early in the disease. Physicians may prescribe medications immediately after diagnosis to suppress the abnormal immune response.

“Currently available medications for RA treat not just the symptoms of joint pain and stiffness but prevent permanent damage to joint structures,” Dr. Tew said. “These medications have been shown to improve function and prevent disability as well, but do have potential side effects requiring careful dosing and monitoring over time.”

Rheumatoid arthritis affects each person differently. Some people experience severe symptoms when the condition flares up. Others may have less severe symptoms or even go through long periods of remission.

“Dr. Tew is now my RA co-pilot and has been instrumental in guiding my course of treatment with RA, which is complicated by additional autoimmune issues,” Prideaux said.

Dr. Tew says most patients want to know how long they will have to take their medications and how those medications will affect their normal life activities. But he says these issues are specific to individual patients.

“I am on a journey of coping with RA. Although this chronic condition has altered my life plan and taken some things away from me, it has given me unexpected gifts that are far more valuable.” Prideaux said. “I know I can’t beat this disease, but it certainly won’t beat me.”

Get involved

Walk to Cure Arthritis

Are you interested in getting involved? Join the Walk to Cure Arthritis on April 26, 2014 at Concordia University. Learn more here.