Animated teetering pile of pebbles

Every. Little. Thing. The Balancing Act of RA

Hello everyone, how is every little thing? That’s the question for us RA sufferers, isn’t it? Every. Little. Thing. Why? Because we know that if even the tiniest piece gets out of wack, things go haywire and haywire for us means...well, it’s messy. Like 'announcing the wrong best picture at the Oscars' messy.

Rheumatoid Arthritis is a balancing act and not the fun kind you see at the circus. Instead of Cirque du Soleil, it's more like Hurt not Okay (you try thinking of something better). Sometimes the smallest change in daily routine, diet, medication, or even sleep patterns can throw your entire system out of alignment and that means one thing – the “F” word. No, not the four-letter one you’re thinking of but a five-letter word that involves a lot less cuddling and a lot more moaning.

I’m talking, of course, about a flare. Anyone with RA does their best to avoid them like the plague. And when we happen to stumble our way into one like I did recently, it’s all hands on deck to try to figure out what the hell triggered it.

Pain & stiffness I haven't felt in a long time

Three months ago I started waking up with joint pain and stiffness on a level I hadn’t felt in a long time. That includes all through chemo and my bout with lymphoma, my attempts at exercising and regaining some muscle, and my short stint as a handyman around the house. At first, I simply thought I’d forgotten to take my meds. It’s happened before, but it usually doesn’t hurt until I actually realize I forgot to take my pills due to some weird application of the placebo effect.

Did I push myself too hard with exercise?

After a week or so I realized it couldn’t be me just forgetting my meds again and again. Placebo or not, five days without meds and I’d be effectively dead, so that couldn’t be it. Next, I thought maybe I had aggravated my body by doing too much exercise, but the amount of exercise I was doing wouldn’t make a mouse winded, so that was out. It was a mystery.

What was triggering this RA flare up?

After two months of bad days, I was at my wit's end. I knew that I was going to go bonkers if I had to go back to the bad old days of not having a medicine that worked to control my RA. I spent twenty-five years like that and it was a rollercoaster of emotion. And pain. And hell. A painful rollercoaster of emotion straight to hell, one might say.

Assessing my diet

I was determined not to go back to that so next I thought maybe it’s something I’m eating. Or not eating. Or something I don’t even realize I’m eating. Or get the picture. I began dissecting my entire diet, which, surprisingly, didn’t consist of much. Have you ever sat down and actually taken stock of what you eat? I think you’d be surprised. My diet consisted mainly of grilled chicken, coffee, and artificial sweetener. The supermodel’s diet, I think they call it. I guess I’m a creature of habit because I apparently eat the same thing more often than not.

Now, I know some people say wheat can cause RA to flare, and some say it’s gluten. Some say it’s too much sugar, and some say it’s alcohol, but none of those ever affected me in that way so it was unlikely they would suddenly start.

A determination to figure this out

I was beyond frustrated. I was waking up every morning with my knees feeling like they were encased in concrete and my neck feeling like I had carried King Kong on my shoulders. It had been so long since things had been that bad that I had forgotten what it felt like. The awfulness all came flooding back, though, like a bad acid trip, and I instantly remembered how every single bad day with RA felt.

I was sure this flare was of my own doing

It was even more important that I figure out what the heck I had changed to make the house of arthritis cards fall down. No – explode into flame. To add to the intrigue, every now and then I’d wakeup and feel like my old self – not that much pain and only a little stiffness. It was maddening because it definitely meant that it was somehow my fault, I was doing something that was causing the flare.

I was lying there in my bed last week, unable to get up once again. I was at my wit's end, the type of overarching overwhelmedness that only someone suffering from chronic illness can experience. I turned to my nightstand to reach for my coffee. Since my fingers were also being affected by the current work stoppage going on in my body, I bobbled the coffee cup and spilled it over.

Was this the culprit behind my latest flare?

As it went down, it ricocheted off the bottle of diphenhydramine I was using to sleep lately, and we all ended up on the floor in a big, sticky, sweet, hot, mess, and not the good kind either. Somehow, every single time I drop things, they bounce and ricochet in ways that I couldn’t reproduce if I had one million tries, and it’s always the worst possible rebound.

Use of over-the-counter sleeping medicine

So there I was, cursing my hands, the illness, the universe in general, and the flimsiness of plastic bottles, and I had a thought. I had been taking more and more of the over-the-counter diphenhydramine sleeping medicine lately. In fact...I started taking it just about three months ago. I didn’t need it to go to sleep, but it helped keep me from waking up during the night, and that meant a more restful sleep. I think, no, I’m sure I had started taking it at around the same time the RA began to flare. Could it? Would it? Did it?

The fragility of chronic illness

Well, long story short, it could, it would, and it did. The simple act of taking a bit of sleeping over-the-counter medicine at night had flung my entire system in chaos and caused a flare in my RA, something I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. It took me three months to figure out what I had added or taken away that threw a spanner into the works. A tiny amount of purple liquid, not even enough to fill a medicine cup, was enough to make all the difference.

That’s how fragile the balance of the body is for those who suffer from chronic illness. I figured it out but it reminded me how careful I have to be, something I forgot in the long still between this flare and my last. So now the flare is subsiding but I have to find another way to stay asleep during the night. Maybe some of that over-the counter-stuff... Oh well, talk soon.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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