A rheumatoid arthritis (RA) diagnosis can be hard to swallow. This chronic autoimmune disease is characterized by inflammation, pain, stiffness, bone damage, and loss of function or disability. In advanced cases, it can also affect internal organs.

While there is no known cure for RA, early diagnosis and treatment can help improve the quality of life for the 1.3 million Americans living with the condition. Here's what you can expect after a diagnosis.

  1. There are effective treatments. Scientific research and innovations have advanced so much over the last two decades that a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis is no longer an automatic sentence to a future of disability and disfigurement. There are many drugs that can effectively relieve pain and slow the progress of the disease, such as biological modifiers, corticosteroids, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDS), and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors.

    Recent studies indicate that early, aggressive treatment after a diagnosis significantly improves both short-term and long-term outcomes, and increases patients' chances of remission. As soon as you're diagnosed, ask your rheumatologist about this kind of treatment.

  2. There will be lots of tests. Medical tests such as X-rays, MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging), blood tests, motor function assessments, and quality-of-life questionnaires will be a regular part of your life after a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis. Instead of viewing them as a nuisance, consider them weapons in your arsenal. These tests help monitor the status of the disease and the progress of your treatment. The results enable your medical team to prescribe better medications, exercises, alternative remedies, and lifestyle changes to improve the rheumatoid arthritis--and possibly force it into remission.
  3. You may want to change your diet. Being overweight or obese places more strain on your joints, increases inflammation in the body, and lowers your chances of arthritis remission. If you're carrying extra weight when you receive a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, work with your rheumatologist or dietitian, or both, to create a customized weight loss plan.

    Also, some people with rheumatoid arthritis report improvements in their symptoms when they fill up on foods that reduce inflammation. These foods include fatty fish with essential fatty acids, and fruits and vegetables rich in joint-protecting bioflavonoids.

  4. You'll need to exercise. The verdict is in--exercise produces several benefits for people with rheumatoid arthritis: It helps to reduce stiffness and pain; maintain flexibility; strengthen joints, muscles, and bones, and enhance weight loss. A study presented at the Annual Congress of the European League Against Rheumatism also found that a supervised exercise program can reduce the need for daily corticosteroid and anti-inflammatory medications, and improve symptoms of depression and anxiety in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

    Once you receive a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, your rheumatologist and physical therapist will create an individualized exercise routine that will include therapeutic, flexibility, aerobic, and strengthening exercises. For the best results, follow the routine as prescribed. You may also benefit from meditative or relaxation exercises such as tai chi and yoga, which studies show help to reduce stress and relieve symptoms.

  5. Expect other lifestyle changes. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect even the simplest daily task--from holding a pen to taking a bath to getting in and out of a car. After a diagnosis, making adjustments to your normal way of life will be a daily part of coping. For instance, you may need to use arthritis assistive devices to support motor function and prevent joint damage. Or you may need to rearrange your cupboards to make items more easily accessible, or modify your bathing and grooming routine to avoid morning pain and stiffness.

The disruption of life as you knew it can be frustrating and intimidating at first. But being proactive, getting into a routine, and trying to keep a positive attitude can make a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis a little easier to handle.


EULAR 2009 Annual Congress of the European League Against Rheumatism  press release, http://www.eular.org/congresspressreleases/AB0724_press_release_Sousa_exercise_programme_for_RA.pdf .