When you first receive a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, it can be hard to swallow. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease that's characterized by inflammation, pain, stiffness, bone damage, and loss of function or disability. In advanced cases, it can also affect internal organs.

To date, there is no known cure for rheumatoid arthritis, and the majority of the 1.3 million Americans will live with the disease for the rest of their lives. Early diagnosis and treatment of RA is critical if you want to continue enjoying a good quality of life. Here's what you can expect after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

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 rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis significantly improves the short-term and long-term outcomes for patients, and increases their chances of remission. From the moment you're diagnosed, ask your rheumatologist about this treatment.

2. There will be lots of tests. Medical tests such as X-rays, MRIs, 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 against arthritis. These tests help to 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 should 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 diet that can help you lose weight.

Also, some people with rheumatoid arthritis report improvements in their arthritis symptoms by filling up on certain foods that reduce inflammation in the body. These foods include fatty fish that contain essential fatty acids that create anti-inflammatory prostaglandins in the body. Also, fruits and vegetables rich in joint-protecting bioflavonoids can help.  

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 levels 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 RA symptoms.

5. Expect other lifestyle changes. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect even the simplest daily task--from holding a pen, to taking a bath, or 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 around morning pain and stiffness.

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

Source:   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 .