RA – it’s not ‘fair wear and tear’!

May 4, 2012 at 9:20 am | Posted in arthrits, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, joint pai, Me, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 9 Comments
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One of the many things people with rheumatoid arthritis battle with is the many misconceptions around the disease, the most ‘popular’ of which is that ‘arthritis is wear and tear on your joints’. One of the reasons this misconception is so hard to grapple with is that it’s true – sometimes. There are many, many kinds of arthritis – all arthritis means is joint inflammation. It comes from the Greek arthron (arthretes or similar depending on which dictionary you look in!) for joint, and –itis, a suffix used to indicate inflation, so it means inflamed joint.

What the word arthritis doesn’t tell you is why the joint is inflamed, and thereby hangs a tale! It gets even more confusing because arthritis tends to be split into the many kinds of ‘inflammatory arthritis’ on the one side, and osteoarthritis, which (is ‘wear and tear’ though by no means always fair!) on the joints, on the other. And yet arthritis means inflammatory, and of course osteoarthritis can cause some inflammation too, so it makes it even harder to explain the differences simply.

Perhaps the most important thing is that however unpleasant, debilitating and downright painful osteoarthritis is, it affects the joints and only the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis and the other related autoimmune diseases are just that – diseases, aka illnesses, and can affect considerably more than your joints.

The difference in a nutshell

Osteoarthritis (also known as wear-and-tear arthritis or degenerative joint disease) is caused by the cartilage between the bones in a joint wearing away or breaking down.  The cartilage basically sits between the bones of a joint and stop them rubbing together. When they do rub together because the cartilage is worn away it can cause a great deal of pain and debilitation.  It often (though by no means always) occurs in one joint, and may be a joint that has been used a great deal e.g. a blacksmith getting osteoarthritis in an arm joint.

Rheumatoid arthritis on the other hand (and that’s the one I’m going to talk about because it’s the one I know, as I live with it every day) is a chronic, progressive, inflammatory  arthritis. Chronic means long-term, it’s there and, in this case, it’s not going to go away. Progressive means without treatment it’s likely to get worse. It is an autoimmune disease, whereby, for reasons not yet understood (though theories abound) the body’s immune system attacks some of the body’s own tissue instead of (or as well as) invading bacteria etc.  In rheumatoid arthritis (RA) it is the synovium (joint lining) that is the main target of attack, but many other organs can be affected too.

Spot the difference

Even doctors find this one tricky, which is why RA can sometimes take a very long time to diagnose. Another problem is that RA seems to crop up with infinite variety; just about every patient ‘presents’ differently when they go to see their doctor. Some things to look out for though are:

RA will almost always occur in more than one joint at the same time

  • RA will often involve obvious swelling around the joints
  • RA will often involve obvious redness around the joints
  • People with RA will often find joints extremely stiff first thing in the morning, with this stiffness wearing away gradually over a period of an hour or more
  • People with RA will often feel unwell, with a kind of general ‘don’t feel good’ feeling including tiredness, headaches, lethargy and fatigue
  • RA apparently often occurs ‘symmetrically’ – i.e. if you have it one hand, it will also occur in the other. If you have it one knee, it will crop up in the other one too.
  • RA frequently affects the small joints – those in the hands and feet, whereas osteoarthritis often affects the larger joints.

But see all those ‘often’s and ‘almost’s? That’s why it’s so hard to diagnose! The worst of my RA, for instance, has been in my knees and shoulders, so I don’t fit the ‘small joints’ pattern, although it does all affect hands and feet.

The good news as told by Pollyanna Penguin

 If you have osteoarthritis, short of joint replacement and painkillers there’s probably not a lot you can do about it (although maybe glucosamine helps in some way – the jury is out!) If you have rheumatoid arthritis there are treatments available. They are many and varied, and some work for some people and others work for others and you’re really incredibly unlucky they won’t work  for you ; if you’re new to this whole RA thing, don’t panic when you read the blogs all around the RA community. There are hundreds of people out there whose RA is under really good control through drugs and/or other treatments, and as a consequence they consider they have better things to do than blog about arthritis! So those of us who blog tend to be the unlucky ones – although of course there are exceptions. I’m on the fence here – I’m a lucky one – things are pretty much under control, and I only blog once in a while when I have something to say or those nice folks over at IAAM ask me to!

There are many medical treatments out there, and there are new ones coming out quite often too. The new ones, largely ‘biologics’ tend to be very expensive at the moment so your doctor will probably start you off on some of the older ones, which are ‘cheap as chips’ as one of the rheumatology nurses at my hospital put it. I’m on that old stalwart methotrexate. It’s the most commonly used drug I think, it’s certainly ‘cheap as chips’ these days, and for me it really works. Some people have nasty side-effects from it though, and for others it just doesn’t do the job. If that’s the case then it can be tried in combination with other things, or you might be moved on to one of the spangly new biologics.

You might, of course, opt to go for a non-medical treatment. My personal belief is that it’s a good idea to get things under control with medicine and then use other things such as physiotherapy (physical therapy is the US translation!), occupational therapy, acupuncture if you think it helps, dietary things etc. added on top, because I believe that this is a progressive disease and that these various medications, although they won’t flat out cure you, can and often will stop the progression, which is hugely important. Other people disagree and use complementary therapies, which seem to help them. It’s your choice – but please, just do your research before you decide!

Support

So, it’s not all doom and gloom – anyone with RA (or osteo for that matter) would rather not have it, but there are things that can be done, and there is also support out there, from NRAS and Arthritis Care in the UK, the Arthritis Foundation (and others I’m sure) in the US and UK, and now from IAAM, the International Autoimmune Arthritis  Movement. IAAM are doing a lot to increase people’s awareness and understanding of what autoimmune arthritis (RA being one kind of that) is, and I’m proud to be a member and a ‘blog leader’ for them. They have  established World Autoimmune Arthritis Day (WAAD), to be held annually on May 20th, online and during all time zones, making it a 47-hour online event!  This Virtual Convention will unite patients, supporters and nonprofits from around the globe, inviting them to participate in both live and on-demand presentations, scheduled live chat sessions, surveys, live Call to Action posts and access to an online library of downloadable resources that can help people with autoimmune arthritis and their supporters in managing their diseases. WAAD is registered on 16 health calendars internationally and has already received nonprofit support from over a dozen organizations, including the American College of Rheumatology, the Spondylitis Association of America, Arthritis New Zealand, the International Still’s Disease Foundation and Lupus UK.  As the official Host of this historic event, IAAM invites YOU to be a part of it too. Best of all?  It’s FREE to register!

World Autoimmune Arthritis Day  (WAAD) website link- www.worldautoimmunearthritisday.org

WAAD registration link- http://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/event?llr=0&oeidk=a07e5n7i1aq5f98d0e9

Happy Birthday

And what’s more, it’s IAAM’s first birthday on May 7th. Slightly in advance Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday dear IA(AAAA)AM*, happy birthday to you.

* Can’t sing it properly without some extra As!

Good old NRAS – Employment courses for UK-based RA sufferers

February 19, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Posted in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 6 Comments
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NRAS (the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society) are running a series of 10 UK based events helping those with RA to keep working. The workshops will be held throughout 2010 in cities all across the UK. They’re open to anyone with RA and they’re free. Each workshop will allow you to get information about talking to their employer and colleagues about RA, including:

  • sharing practical tips based on real-life experience

  • talking to experts, from employment lawyers to occupational therapists
  • finding out more about what disability law means for you
  • finding out more about handling your RA treatment and work commitments

The workshops will be held in:

  • London 24th February; Bristol 10th March;
  • Cardiff 11th March;
  • Manchester 18th May;
  • Birmingham 19th May;
  • Nottingham 20th May;
  • Glasgow 22nd June;
  • Londonderry 23rd June;
  • Portsmouth 7th July;
  • Reading 28th September.

(I don’t know what time of day – ring them and find out!)

What a surprise, there’s nothing in East Anglia. There never is. Come on guys. We’re a big bulge on the side of little ol’ England with FOUR counties in it that you’re not represented in! And yet Reading, an easy, no-changes 20 minute train ride from London, has a course! OK, whine over, back to publicising NRAS, whom I have a VERY high regard for! Maybe I’ll go the Reading one as I have friends nearby. (Yes, Maggie, that’s a hint.)

Registration is happening now, so to register or to find out more, ring them on 0845 458 3969 or visit http://www.nras.org.uk to register on line.

NICE fiddles while RA burns a hole in the economy and our joints

January 30, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Posted in arthrits, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, joint pai, Me, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 5 Comments
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I got my shiny new NRAS magazine through the post today. Great to see an article by Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy in there! Well done RA Guy! But there’s always something in there to get me aeriated, and the first magazine of 2010 was no exception!

Interesting also to see a two-page spread on the ‘European Fit for Work Report’. Frankly, I’m not sure there were that many surprises in there, although I was a bit surprised at the number of people who become ‘work disabled’. Apparently 40% leave work altogether within 5 years of diagnosis, which is not happy reading. However, it appears that the main reason for this is people being diagnosed and treated too late or incorrectly. The report recommended ‘new and more inclusive methods to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of treating musculo-skeletal diseases in particular; one that considers more than the up-front costs of medical expenditure and incorporates wider social and economic factors.’ No kidding. In other words, this report recommends doing exactly what NICE doesn’t do. The article goes on to say that ‘NICE in the UK has already begun such a deliberation, although no decision has been reached to date.’ No surprise there then!

Now, my honorable friends, please turn to page 12 of your NRAS magazine. Don’t have one? Not to worry – here’s the headline: ‘People on Enbrel stay in work longer’. It goes on to state that a 500-person study (the COMET study if anyone’s inclined to look it up) showed that those with active early RA were three times less likely to stop working if treated with MTX and Enbrel, rather than MTX alone. Absenteeism was also reduced by almost 50% for those on the combination therapy. But here’s the rub – NICE won’t allow anyone to start on a combination therapy like this until they have been proved unresponsive to at least two other DMARDS including methotrexate … so when does early stop being early? It takes, I would think from my own experience, at least six months to show that a DMARD is not working for you, because it can take them that long to start working. So you’re diagnosed (probably not immediately), you’re given a DMARD if you’re lucky, perhaps hydroxychloroquine, for six months; it doesn’t work. You try MTX (either on its own or in combination with HCQ) for another six months. That doesn’t work either. You’ve now been diagnosed for at least a year. Is this still early enough to count for this study? Perhaps it is. If so, fair enough. If not then are NICE ruining people’s chances of staying healthy yet again. I don’t know the answer – I just pose the question.

And finally to a little article by a brave lady called Jean Burke, who works with NICE to provide a patient viewpoint in their deliberations. Rather her than me but I am full of admiration. Apparently she was asked by a member of an appraisal committee ‘Surely a twenty percent increase in quality of life isn’t worth bothering about?’ Well, I suppose that’s why they need the patient viewpoint. If you’re reading this blog as someone with RA I imagine you’ll see it her way immediately; I know I did. She points out that if the extra 20% means she can make a cup of tea in the morning, go to work or walk to the shops then yes, it’s worth it!

So long as NICE remains in its ivory tower, untouched by all these deliberations about the socioeconomic effects of diseases and so on, I simply cannot see how the system can ever work effectively.

I wish I could live in the dream world my consultant inhabits

December 27, 2009 at 11:03 pm | Posted in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 2 Comments
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It’s official – I had a flare at the end of October/early November … and more, I suspect. No kidding. I think I knew that, but this time it actually showed in the bloods! That’s a first for me!! I’ll give the consultant his due though – he was as amazed as I was that the bloods actually matched with how I’d felt, so he does at least appreciate that one can feel totally lousy and have no indication in the blood tests whatsoever, and vice versa.

Anyway, we agreed that things were going pretty well at the moment and that it didn’t seem sensible to go on increasing the MTX willy-nilly if things were OK. I explained that I knew I was much, much better than last time I’d seen him (which I think was well over a year ago, as I’ve since seen a registrar and a nurse but not the man himself), but that they certainly weren’t perfect, and for the first time he admitted that I probably wasn’t going to achieve perfect … I’d kinda figured that out, but still a slight blow to hear him say it!

He then cheerily added that never mind, compared to what he usually saw I really wasn’t bad at all. He has no idea just how bloody irritating this comment is – he’s said it before. I think last time I was too dazed and generally fed up to actually respond, but this time I was properly prepared and I pointed out that I wasn’t comparing myself with his other patients – I was comparing myself to myself before this whole R.A. business started, and that when I do that I don’t see my current self in a terribly favourable light. The nurse who sits in with him (as a chaperon and to make sure he remembers to fill all his forms in!) was nodding sympathetically and understandingly behind his back. I got the feeling she’d heard this comment from him before and had thought exactly what I was now saying. Anyway, he sort of blinked a bit, looked rather surprised at being answered back to and mumbled something that was vaguely conciliatory … I think.

Then he bid me to enter his dream world by saying, “If the MTX doesn’t keep things under control, if you have another flare, we’ll put you on these terribly expensive new drugs called biologics or anti-TNFs.” (He does tend to forget I have a brain.)

I snorted – very rude, but it just sort of happened! I said something like, “Have to be one hell of a flare for the NHS to let me on to those!”

“Oh no,” says he, “just an ordinary sort of flare.”

Well, that’s certainly not the impression I’ve been given by the NRAS magazine, the people on the NRAS forum (other R.A. sufferers, generally in a much worse state than me, who have failed the ‘DAS test’ for anti-TNFs), the press, people I met in Barcelona, the nurse practitioner, the GP, the practice nurse … just about everyone else really. Since this is the man that told me I should see him in three months last time, when it was totally impossible for anyone to get an appointment closer than six months, and the man who told me that all I needed to do if I had a flare was phone and I’d get straight through to someone on the helpline (not true as it’s usually unmanned and then they don’t call you back) I don’t feel too filled with faith about the biologics comment either! I dare say though that his “ordinary sort of flare” would be the ordinary sort of flare that his other patients have, not my little fizzle!

Well, hopefully the MTX will now do its job properly and I won’t need to ever find out whether he’s living in a dream world or I’m just being unnecessarily pessimistic about my prospects for biologics!

New NICE guidelines on RA

March 9, 2009 at 9:56 pm | Posted in Me, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | Leave a comment
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Well it seems that NICE (the ironically named and aforementioned National Institute for Clinical Excellence in the UK) have done an about face on their original ‘if you try one anti-TNF and it doesn’t work, tough. You can’t have another one, ner ner ne ner ner’. They’ve released new guidelines which are actually very positive. Of course it doesn’t mean that all rheumatology departments will agree with or follow their guidelines but I suppose it’s a start. Here are some of the positives (IMO), and it’s only a very select few that resonated with me:

  • Newly diagnosed people should be offered a combination DMARD therapy straight away, including methotrexate, ideally within three months of persistent symptoms. Well I don’t think I know ANYONE in the UK that was diagnosed within three months of persistent symptoms, let alone given the combination therapy option, but I’m glad if that’s going to change.
  • A level of what is acceptable disease control should be agreed with the patient in advance and worked towards. HA! I’ll believe that when I see it. The nearest we come to discussing acceptable levels is ‘Really you’re not too bad. I see much worse people in here every day.’ Well yeah, and there are people much worse off than me in Africa, and indeed round the corner, but that doesn’t mean I have to be content with my lot!
  • Quoting direct from the NRAS site (www.rheumatoid.org.uk) “People with RA should have access to a multidisciplinary team (MDT); this should provide the opportunity for periodic assessments of the effect of the disease on their lives ( such as pain, fatigue, everyday activities, mobility, ability to work or take part in social or leisure activities, quality of life, mood, impact on sexual relationships) and access to a named member of the MDT (for example, the specialist nurse) who is responsible for coordinating their care.” Well yeah, I have access to a multidisciplinary team. Like any team, some are fabulous (physio that I see now, occupational therapist, even if we don’t share a sense of humour, rheumatology nurse at the GP surgery), and some aren’t. One that isn’t is the one who would no doubt be ‘coordinating my care’, gawd help me, if that happened; the RA Nurse Practitioner at the hospital. I can imagine quite vividly what her assessment would be like. She would read off a form in a board voice, ‘Are you depressed? No? Good. Do you have sex? No? Good.’ And of course what’s required is that thing they don’t have time for at hospital, a CONVERSATION!

And don’t get me started on the patient guidelines – well, if you know me you know I will no doubt get started on the patient guidelines when I have time and feel up to it, but just for now I’ll say they’re absolutely appalling, patronising, insulting …you get the idea. I asked Arthritis Care for a copy.  They were wonderfully efficient and friendly and sent me a copy return post, but having received them I took one look and went straight to the NICE website to find the health care professionals’ version – THAT actually told me things. I am sorry I caused paper and Arthritis Care money to be wasted. The patient guide had lots of nice white space and simple bullet points that told me that as a patient I should definitely have the right to treatment, possibly with drugs.  (OK, I exaggerate, but thin doesn’t even begin to describe the level of information!)

Here’s a a link to the patient guidelines if you want a laugh or cry. And here’s a link to the healthcare professional guidelines if you actually want some information.

I’m probably being a bit harsh, but it surely can’t be that hard to have something really, really simple with links or (see page whatever) if you want further detail, instead of assuming all patients are clueless. It’s as bad as the hospital rheumy nurse giving me the very useful methotrexate book and saying, ‘but really there’s more information here than you need’. I think I should be allowed to decide that.

Great news! NASTY are doing something NICE

November 26, 2008 at 11:59 am | Posted in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 1 Comment
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NRAS has just announced that NICE, the so called ‘National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence’ and unaffectionately known as NASTY, which is in fact a national organisation for making sure expensive drugs don’t get paid for on the National Health Service, is re-opening its enquiry into whether a patient should be allowed to try another anti-TNF drug if the first fails to work.

Admittedly this is not a total reversal of their previous Final Appraisal Document, which indicated that patients should not be allowed to try another anti-TNF if the first failed, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that a) patients who ‘failed’ on one anti-TNF frequently had success with another, as these drugs are all quite differnet and work in different ways to each other and b) a patient who had failed on this last line of treatment was likely to already be suffering from severe RA (Because in this country you can’t have an anti-TNF at all on the NHS unless your RA is severe, even though evidence suggests that the earlier you treat with an anti-TNF, the more succesful you are).

The fact that NICE have ‘backed down’ to the extent of even revisiting this is great news though, and it proves that they are forced to listen when we all stand up and shout! Thanks to NRAS and all the other organisations who appealed against the Final Appraisal Document. No thanks to my MP, who did at least stir himself to write a letter to the Minister for Health but then failed to understand her response and sent me a useless letter saying something like ‘It’s OK – this hasn’t actually been decided yet’.

Thanks to NRAS forum

April 8, 2008 at 8:20 pm | Posted in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | Leave a comment
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I have just joined the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) and as well as a pile of interesting bumph and a very informative newsletter all about RA, they sent me a link to their web forum. It’s one of the most active forums I have ever seen (and I’ve seen plenty). It’s packed with informative posts, but reading all about other people’s experiences really put my ‘mild’ diagnosis into perspective. I’m really very grateful that I have only mild symptoms compared to some of these people, but it’s quite inspiring to see how people support each other and soldier on. Having thoroughly depressed myself reading about what might, just might be to come for me in later years, I moved on to the ‘A bit of fun’ section of the forum and laughed until I had tears in my eyes. So thank you NRAS for a thoroughly informative, useful and entertaining forum!

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