The truth is there is not really an organ or system of our bodies that is not potentially affected by RA. Why is that? 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, shingles, etc. and you can see that only attending to RA is a recipe for mismanagement of the disease.
I call them tag alongs but the more medical term is comorbidities. I like tag along a lot better. It does not sound quite so fatalistic.
Dealing with RA comorbidities
So how do we deal with all of these without becoming so obsessive we become nothing short of hypochondriacs? Well, it is not easy, since we have to take stock on a daily, if not more often, basis. The key is to step back and be a bit clinical about it versus having an emotional reaction. Is this easy? Oh no, not even a little bit, but with practice it is achievable.
Let’s just go through one scenario I experienced and you can see how it might work. I have very dry eyes, Sjogrens Syndrome actually. Generally, I have success treating with it with simple dry eye drops. Several years ago, I began to notice a more gritty feeling and more importantly, some vision issues, namely less clarity and even some disturbance in my night time vision when driving. This clinical way of looking at the issue was crucial because I initially thought it was just the Sjogrens and did not give it much thought. Thankfully, I shared this with several people in my care team and it led to me heading to my ophthalmologist for a prompt exam. 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:
- never assume that what you are experiencing is routine or simple,
- share with your care team
- do some research yourself
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, even meditate for 10-15 minutes, go for a walk, chat with my family, distract myself with some activity, sleep on it, if possible. If I still feel that there is something more 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. Now, understand there are times when clearly there is no time to contemplate and it is important to separate those emergencies from the kind that allow for some reflection. That difference often becomes instinctual over time and I know the difference after all of 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.
Educating ourselves about RA comorbidities
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.
Once armed with the knowledge and resolve to manage RA tag alongs, we will be that much more attuned to them and far more likely to find the solutions and treatments to manage them within that broad umbrella of RA.