According to Pharmaprix’s National Survey of 1,000 women living with arthritis, the most important issues for respondents was decreasing joint stiffness and damage, and knowing how to decrease and manage pain. More than half of the women also said their current health status limits them in vigorous activities, such as running, lifting heavy objects and participating in strenuous sports.
There are a number of safe and effective ways women can manage joint stiffness and pain associated with arthritis. These consist of range-of-motion exercises such as arthritis-friendly yoga or Pilates, stationary biking, swimming and other non-weight bearing exercises that help in achieving a healthy body weight and weight loss if necessary. These activities have been shown to decrease arthritis pain and lessen associated disability.
Medical treatment of arthritis typically includes taking appropriate combinations of medications and doing muscle-strengthening exercises. Dietary supplements may also be effective, specifically, appropriate amounts of calcium, vitamin D, folic acid and other basic nutrients and minerals. If arthritis continues to be disabling or joint damage is significant, surgical approaches such as replacement of affected joints may be an option.
We also discovered that women face specific arthritis challenges and needs during two key periods of their lives: Child-bearing years, between the ages of 20-45, and Prime of Life, starting at age 45.
A women’s child bearing years, which is a time of great personal growth and responsibility (schooling, marriage, career development, raising children), can be enhanced by her ability to control her arthritis. The development of arthritis during pregnancy requires extra attention to ensure a healthy pregnancy for both mother and child. If you are pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, and have arthritis, it’s especially important to have regular communication with your health care team about your condition, as well as gain support from family, friends and coworkers.
Marked by major physiologic events such as menopause, the Prime of Life stage is a time when complications of arthritis most often first appear, potentially along with other chronic illnesses and a possible change of support systems.
No matter what life stage you are in, you can improve the quality of your life with arthritis by learning practical tips for daily tasks, protecting joints and getting started with a fitness and nutrition program.
Across the different types of arthritis, women have reported that relationships and social and leisure activities have been impacted by their disease, resulting in high levels of depression and anxiety. Body image and self-esteem were also found to be significantly affected by arthritis.
Women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) rank relationship-related sexual problems higher than men with RA. Pain is the biggest problem, followed closely by “problems with a partner”, including her partner being afraid of hurting her during sex, a partner’s disinterest, relationship problems, her feeling responsible for her partner’s sexual satisfaction, and problems with sexual roles. “Lack of partner” and “fatigue” were next in priority.
To combat these emotional stresses, it’s important that women living with arthritis maintain healthy relationships. While this may be challenging at times, having a network of supportive friends and family can help a woman through bad times with her disease and make it easier to overcome some of her day-to-day emotional and physical hurdles.
One of the common misconceptions is whether women with inflammatory arthritis are able to have children. The fact is inflammatory arthritis does not affect fertility. For example, women with RA have, on average, approximately the same number of children as the rest of the population. Moreover, pregnancy will not make a women’s arthritis worse. In the case of RA, pregnancy is frequently accompanied by relief from the symptoms of disease, and even possible remission. However, almost all women with RA who experience relief during pregnancy (approximately 90%) experience a disease recurrence within three to four months of giving birth.
If you wish to get pregnant, it is important to inform your Physician or Rheumatologist, preferably six months prior to conception, so they can monitor you and your baby. Also, they may need to adjust your medications, since certain types should not be taken during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
• Tips for Moms
If you have arthritis, you may find it useful to work out strategies ahead of time that will help you care for your baby.
To begin planning, you may want to ask for a referral to an occupational therapist. They will do an assessment in your home to look for potential problems and can help you figure out how to perform tasks such as carrying, bathing and dressing a baby.
o Carrying and lifting
If your hands are affected by arthritis you might find it difficult to lift your baby in the usual way. Many mothers with arthritis find they can use other, larger joints.
Carrying-slings can be used before your child becomes too heavy, at around nine months. If a carrying-sling causes back or hip pain, try a stroller instead - one that is lightweight and easy to open and close.
Diaper changing is less stressful on sore or stiff joints if the changing table is at a comfortable height, where you do not have to bend over. Some changing tables can attach to a wall at any height.
o Pacing yourself
Moms have busy schedules and it is easy to do too much and feel worn out especially with the fatigue that can come with arthritis. Think about ways to pace yourself and conserve your energy by looking at what you can realistically do.
o Talking about your arthritis
Children will learn quickly what mom can or cannot do, but it does help if they understand why. Most importantly, be honest but reassuring about your arthritis. Your family is likely to be interested in what causes it, how it develops and how it will affect what you can do. They might also want to know what it feels like.
o School time
Getting the kids out of bed, washed, fed, dressed and out the door in time can be exhausting. Some preparation the night before, like packing lunches, laying out school clothes, setting out school bags or backpacks and planning breakfast can help ease the stress of the morning.
The key is to remain involved. When you have arthritis, you may not be able to handle skiing or a game of tennis, but spending leisure time with your children is an important way to bond. Adapt activities to your abilities: play a board game, take a walk or go to the movies with your child. Develop shared interests you both enjoy.
Working Women with Arthritis
Arthritis is the most common cause of work disability in Canada. Among Canadian women, arthritis is the most frequently mentioned condition as a cause of disability.
Rates of work disability in women with inflammatory arthritis are particularly high. For example, research shows that 25-50% of women have to stop working within ten years of being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. And since rheumatoid arthritis tends to strike in the prime of working life, this has serious consequences on the lives of women living with disease and on their families.
Tips for Avoiding Work Disability
There are a number of things that women with arthritis can do to help manage work and arthritis and prevent disability. Here are some strategies:
• Make sure you manage your disease by attending appointments with your doctor and other health professionals, consistently taking necessary medications and practicing a healthy lifestyle. Often, women with arthritis can feel they are "just hanging on" with work and family responsibilities. This may cause them to feel as if they simply do not have the time or energy to take proper care of themselves and their arthritis, which in turn may worsen their symptoms and make it difficult to work.
• Use the resources that are available to you. Health care professionals can be a terrific resource for developing strategies to better cope with balancing arthritis and work. rheumatologists and family doctors may be able to offer helpful advice. As well, occupational therapists and vocational rehabilitation counselors may be very helpful in addressing work-related issues.
• Try to negotiate flexible work arrangements. The ability to work from home, to work part-time, or modify a work schedule allows you to plan your work while taking your arthritis into consideration. In the long-run, this may actually improve productivity and decrease sick days. Women with greater flexibility and autonomy at work are less likely to stop working.
• Ask for an ergonomic assessment from a professional trained in arthritis issues. Simple modifications and proper equipment can make an enormous difference in creating a physical work environment that does not aggravate arthritis.
• As much as you are comfortable, educate your coworkers and employers. Far too many people do not understand what it means to have arthritis. Fatigue can be misinterpreted as laziness, unpredictable flares can be seen as a lack of reliability and physical limitations can be ignored or resented by employers and coworkers. By talking about your arthritis, you can prevent many of these misconceptions.