Monstrous Medical Misconception: You Can’t Have RA If You Can Exercise

Exercise and being active are important parts of staying healthy and fighting back against the effects of aging and disease. Everybody and every body is able to exercise to some extent.

Not all exercise has to be strenuous or extensive. Sometimes taking a shower and washing my hair feels like exercise, particularly on days where cycling 15 miles is definitely out of the question. Sometimes just reaching in the cabinet for a glass is an activity that tests range of motion when you live with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

What happens when a doctor doubts you can be seriously ill if you are able to exercise?

Exercise and a delayed RA diagnosis

A member of our community shared a story that a doctor once told her, pre-diagnosis, that she “can’t have RA if you [are able to] exercise and work out.” That made no sense to her and to me neither.

What happened was that this community member’s road to diagnosis became unnecessarily long as a result of this type of misconception, misinformation, or misunderstanding.

What if the exercise reduces some of the effects of the disease and helps to keep some of the pain away? 
Exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous but our bodies are made to move.

I know that if I sit for too long, my body hurts. It becomes stiff and doesn’t want to move. If I don’t make an effort to be even minimally active or mobile for a few minutes every hour, I’ll regret it later.

Gentle exercises are often recommended

When living with rheumatoid arthritis, it’s super important to keep muscles strong and connective tissue supple. Gentle exercises such as water walking, tai chi, yoga, or simple range of motion exercises are commonly recommended.

I know that I experience much less pain when my muscles are strong but relaxed and my joints feel fluid. 

Movement for me reduces swelling and provides pain relief.

These are reasons why I like cycling in addition to the cardiovascular workup it provides. And those of us living with RA need to pay attention to our cardiovascular health as well.

Considerations to prevent injury

Since RA can seriously impair the stability of your joints, it’s very important not to stress them by putting too much pressure on delicate tissues, particularly when you are in an active flare-up of your disease. You do not want to injure yourself while trying to use physical activity to stay healthy.

An occupational therapist can offer customized suggestions on ways you can protect your joints while doing specific activities. Ideally, physical activity should not cause additional pain or disability.

Was the doctor wrong or misinformed?

In my opinion, yes. And the community member was eventually diagnosed with RA. But, the more I considered the story, I tried to view a bigger picture. We want our doctors to understand how painful and debilitating RA can be, right? We need them to listen closely and take our concerns seriously.

I wonder how many rheumatologists only hear the horror stories of pain and disability from their patients. How many rheumatologists hear stories from patients who might be able to cycle for 25 miles as long as they chose a bike wisely and ice their knees afterward the ride? There are probably more of the former than the latter.

Could this explain the doctor’s reluctance to consider such a painful disease in a person who stays active?

Preconceived notions of what we can and cannot do

I’ll try to give the doctor the benefit of the doubt on this one. But, my gut reaction is still one of shock and disbelief. Just think how ridiculous it would sound if a doctor said, “You can’t have RA because your toes are not crooked.”

I have RA and I don’t want to develop crooked toes to prove my disease or to stop cycling to match a preconceived idea of what people living with RA can and cannot do.

What is one of the craziest misconceptions or misunderstandings you’ve faced in dealing with a medical professional? Please share your story in the comments.

Be well and stay active my friends,

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