The truth is, there isn't really an organ or system of our bodies that are not potentially affected by RA. Why is that?
Dealing with RA comorbidities
Well, experts agree it is largely due to the very nature of RA, i.e., the inflammation that is the trigger for all of the characteristics of RA. That same inflammation can result in conditions affecting skin, heart, lung, eyes, mental health, etc. Conditions like osteoporosis, cataracts, depression, cancers, etc. are more common. And add to that infection-based conditions like influenza, pneumonia, and shingles and you can see that only attending to RA is a recipe for mismanagement of the disease.
I call them "tag-alongs" but the medical term is comorbidities. I like "tag-along" a lot better. It does not sound quite so fatalistic.
So how do we deal with all of these without feeling like hypochondriacs? Well, it is not easy since we have to take stock daily. The key is to step back and be a bit clinical about it versus having an emotional reaction. Is it easy? Oh no, not even a little bit, but with practice, it is achievable.
Looking at issues "clinically"
Let’s go through a scenario I experienced and you can see how it might work. I have very dry eyes as a result of Sjogrens Syndrome. Generally, I have had success treating it with simple dry eye drops. Several years ago, I began to notice a more gritty feeling and some vision issues, namely less clarity and even some disturbance in my nighttime vision while driving.
This clinical way of looking at the issue was crucial because I initially thought it was the Sjogrens and did not give it much thought. Thankfully, I shared this with several people on my care team, and it led to me heading to my ophthalmologist for a prompt exam. It turns out I had cataracts in both eyes, often an issue with long-term corticosteroid use to treat RA. I had them surgically removed, and I am good to go now.
The moral of this story is to never assume that what you are experiencing is routine or simple, share details with your care team, and do some research yourself.
How I manage anxiety with new symptoms
On the other hand, I sometimes get strange aches and pains that reduce me to panic and anxiety, and it can be hard to get that under control. I try to pause and meditate for 10-15 minutes, go for a walk, chat with my family, distract myself with some activity, or sleep on it, if possible. If I still feel something more is going on, I call my physician and schedule a visit. Now that I have that protocol set up, it helps me to get through these episodes more “clinically,” which makes dealing with these vague issues more successful.
Understand there are times when there is no time to contemplate, and it is important to separate those emergencies from those that allow for some reflection. That difference often becomes instinctual over time, and I know the difference after all these years with RA. Rarely has anything reached that level, but when it has, I knew it needed immediate attention (severe influenza, for instance) and perhaps a visit to the ER. If you are unsure, better safe than sorry, so head to the hospital and let the professionals sort it out.
Never stop learning about RA
Educating ourselves about the RA "tag-alongs" is a big part of managing them. Learning what they are and how they manifest informs us in a very practical way. When odd symptoms appear, we now have an arsenal of knowledge that will serve us well as we make those “clinical” determinations.
On average, how many times per month do you (or your caretaker) go to the pharmacy?
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