Category Archives: flare ups

A quieter time

I stopped taking methotrexate back in December, so I thought I’d report back on how things have been since then. First of all, I noticed the difference in my energy, mood and anxiety almost immediately after stopping. The rheumatology nurse said it would take two weeks to  completely be out of my system, but I started to feel more ‘me’ before that. It was a real relief to get some energy back, and lose some of the dark moods and anxiety that had plagued me for about four months. I hadn’t really expressed to many people the severity of the anxiety that I’d been living with whilst on the methotrexate. The fearful thoughts weren’t taking over and thanks to my mindfulness training, I was able to basically live with them without believing them, but it was hard work, constantly living with a level of mental anxiety that just is not me.

Having the energy to enjoy life – especially around Christmas – meant that I was certain coming off methotrexate was the right decision, even though I did have a few painful flares around the Christmas period. And then, amazingly, I had over a month of being free of flares, fatigue and pain. Towards the end of my time taking methotrexate, I’d been overdoing the sugar, and also cheese – two food groups that I can very easily overeat. So in the New Year, I decided to massively cut down on sugar, and to totally give up dairy. At the same time, I went days without pain, flares or fatigue.

The longer I went without a flare, the more I wondered whether cutting out cheese was a factor. After the first week or so, I thought that it could just be a co-incidence. After two weeks, I was a little hopeful, though I still conceded that it could be a coincidence. After three weeks, I marvelled that this was the longest pain-free period in at least 3 1/2 years. After a month, I wondered if I’d finally cracked it – perhaps dairy is one of my PR triggers and if I just stayed off it, I’d be ‘normal’ again?

Five weeks of no pain is enough to let the hope really slide in. The hope that you’ve maybe entered remission. The hope that perhaps you can live a normal life again. The hope that you’ve found your trigger and that if you just avoided that trigger, you’d be free of flares. That wasn’t to last. Last week I had one night of pain and stiffness that reminded me that with PR, it’s never as straightforward as you’d like it to be. Then yesterday, I had night flares and woke not being able to move the fingers in my left hand, and a sharp and persistent pain in my right wrist.

The pain wasn’t as bad as the disappointment. I managed not to give in to a spiral of thoughts saying things like “you should have known it wouldn’t be as easy as that” and “serve you right for getting hopeful”, but they were there nonetheless. So I had a bit of a cry, and reminded myself that I’d had a long period without pain and that, in and of itself was still worth celebrating. And so I got up, massaged my hands and dragged myself to yoga, which I know helps both mind and body, even though I had to spend a lot of the class in child’s pose resting and feeling sad.

Today I’m pain free again. I’m still going to stay off cheese for another month or so. Just to see. And I’ve been keeping a food diary since the new year, so perhaps that might shed some more light on things in a couple of months when it’s had time to build up some decent data.

In the meantime, the most recent flare has reminded me (once again!) that hopes about a pain free future are all very well, but living a day at a time is the only way to live with PR, because you just never know what’s around the corner. And five weeks without pain, really IS still something worth celebrating.  I won’t totally let go of the hope that one day that might extend to longer, but I’m not going to cling onto it either. I’ve lived with this for long enough to know that spending all my energy just putting hopes or fears into a future that may never  happen just stops you from really living here and now. And here and now really is all there is.

 

Trying something new

After 12 years of living with palindromic rheumatism and experimenting with various lifestyle and dietary changes I’ve made the decision to start taking new medication in addition to the hydroxychloraquine that I already take.

Doing yoga and avoiding gluten and eating healthily has served me pretty well. But it has not cured me. I am still flaring. I am still fatigued. And I am still none the wiser as to what triggers a flare, or what will make it go away once it’s there.

I’ve resisted taking methotrexate for a long time. The side effects looked too scary, and I kept reasoning that as I was generally coping with my arthritis, there was little point in putting these scary drugs into my body.

But sometime over the last twelve months, my perspective has shifted a little. I experienced a three month wrist flare in the winter which led to a lot of stress and worry that permanent damage was likely. I’ve had scans and x-rays and luckily, that’s not the case. But even so, living with that constant flare for three months really did interfere with my quality of life and ability to do some of the simplest tasks. My yoga practise suffered too.

On top of that, the unpredictability of flares, and an extremely severe shoulder flare a couple of months ago made me think “You know what – you don’t have to live like this” and decide that it was time to try something new. I felt like a failure at first and had to work through a few feelings around that, and the fear that comes with starting something new and potentially as damaging to my health as the arthritis itself. But I reasoned – if there’s a problem, I come off it. If the side effects are horrible, I come off it. If there’s no change. I come off it. I’ll be no worse off than I am now.

As well as the fear, there’s positive emotions as well. The fact that methotrexate DOES work for a lot of people gives me some hope. I know people taking it with no side effects at all. And the idea of being pain and flare free, even if it only works for twelve months, is extremely appealing.

I started my first dose on Sunday, and will be taking folic acid four days later. I will be closely monitored at first (blood tests every two weeks) and will be careful to stay away from people with horrible infectious diseases as I will be more likely to catch infections and illnesses as a result of the drug.

I’ve been told that it will take around three months to know if it’s working, so for now, it’s a waiting game. I wait to see if there’ll be side effects and I wait to see if it’s going to work. In the meantime, I continue with the lifestyle changes that I know help me, even if they don’t cure me.

Body confidence

Like most women, I’ve had a pretty love/hate relationship with my body for as long as I can remember. Teenage years were full of mild amounts of self-hatred towards my breasts and belly, and general apathy towards physical exercise due to being rubbish at pretty much all sports.

While not a classic yo yo dieter – I’ve never got particularly fat, nor particularly thin – my weight has fluctuated over the years, as has my body confidence. Despite having read classic feminist texts around body image (“Fat is a Feminist Issue” and Naomi Wolf’s “Beauty Myth”) it’s really hard to completely and utterly fully shake off pervasive societal influences.

I only started to exercise properly when I was 30, and when I did, I developed a new attitude to my body. One which was around seeing my strength and stamina improve, and reaping the rewards of being properly fit when I trekked for three weeks in the mountains of Nepal – one of the greatest achievements of my life so far.

When the arthritis struck ten years ago, a whole bunch of different emotions towards my body emerged. There were negative emotions about my body letting me down, causing me pain and preventing me from fully functioning in the world. Despite years of mindfulness and meditation practice, it’s hard, even now, when a flare rears up to not feel disappointed in my body. When fatigue forces me to cancel something I wanted to do, it takes a conscious effort not to feel angry and upset with my body for letting me down.

This is why continuing to exercise has been crucial to my body and my self-image, as it’s enabled me to focus on what I could still do, rather than what I can’t. And yet… and yet, I’ve often wondered – what could my body still really do, how hard can I push it before the arthritis rebels? I haven’t done a physical challenge for a while (apart from living with arthritis, which is challenge enough), so when the opportunity came to review the Apples & Pears fitness bootcamp for Queen of Retreats, I jumped at the chance.

Lots of people pointed out that I didn’t need to lose weight, but that wasn’t the point for me. I wanted to see what I could do in a week. What I could put my body through and what I was still capable of. I was clear to myself from the outset – if I was too fatigued, or my joints were hurting too much, I’d rest, or not do the activity or exercise. The trainers were understanding and supportive, and reiterated to everyone the importance of listening to your body, and respecting its limits.

I arrived at the bootcamp, both nervous and excited. I am generally pretty fit at the moment. Despite the arthritis (or maybe because of it), I exercise most days – cycle on my bike, go to zumba classes, plus some pilates or yoga too. But would I be able to cope with six full days of exercising ALL DAY? I was also arriving in the middle of a flare – my elbow (in the tendon and joint), and in my shoulder, plus fingers flaring up and down. This meant I was extra cautious in all the weight bearing and resistance activities. The shoulder was particularly troubling as it had been constant for over a month, had been really painful and was impacting on my mobility.

On less sleep than I get at home, I found that I had enough energy to do pretty much all of the activities during the week, missing out on only a few. I swam, I boxed, I did silly relay races and team games. I played basketball (badly!), and hiked for 13 miles. I cycled, did circuits, kettle bells and used medicine balls. And at the end of each day, instead of being fatigued, out of spoons and incapable of functioning, I was only as tired as everyone else. Given that the week before, I’d had evenings where the pain had been so bad that I was too exhausted to have a conversation, this was a complete surprise.

As the week progressed, my flares even began to dissipate, and my shoulder, which had been so bad the previous week that I could not lift it above my head, actually made a full recovery. By the end of the week, I was even able to do shoulder presses and other weight bearing exercises with no apparent ill effects at all. To say I was proud, pleased and shocked was an understatement. I was blown away.

By the end of the week, I had cultivated a completely new relationship with my body, and one that had been absent for a while. I actually started to respect it. At 43, it was still pretty fit, still pretty mobile and it was able to exercise for at least six hours a day without paying me back with arthritis flares or fatigue. Yes, I was hurting – but the muscle pain caused by exercise felt like an achievement rather than a punishment.

On the last day, legs heavy from having done about a million squats, and muscles tired from six days of exercise, we walked up a hill for forty minutes, and then did a timed run of just over a mile (1.6 miles I was told). I started at a jog and I continued on from start to finish. I didn’t stop. I pushed myself as much as I could and kept going despite screaming lungs and petulant legs. Finishing (first!) at the end of the test without having stopped once was one of my biggest achievements of the week.

I’ve returned from bootcamp completely in awe of my body and what it can achieve and overcome. I love it for all of its aches, pains, faults and anomalies, for what it can do and what it can’t. I’ve learned that it can do even more than it does already in terms of exercise, and not to be scared of using weights. I’ve learned that inactivity is more likely to use up limited spoons, than activity (which is something I sort of knew anyway), and that I can be as fit and active as the next person. Most importantly I learned that I can still love who I am, (and including my limitations and my arthritis in that), from head to toe, from inside and out.

Big thanks to all the staff at Apples & Pears: Woody and Gary, Katie, Heather, Annie and Harriet.

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A Day Without Spoons

A day without spoons

When I asked my rheumatologist a few years ago about the fatigue I’d experienced since developing my arthritis, he told me that it wasn’t related. In the new Arthritis Research UK leaflet on PR, it says that fatigue can accompany a flare, but that you are symptom free in between. My own experience, and that of others with PR, does not echo either my rheumatologist’s statement or the Arthritis PR leaflet. Here’s my description of what a day without spoons (energy) is like:

A day without spoons can come without warning. Sometimes it seems understandable — I’d done too much the day before – whatever too much means. But it’s not always as simple as that. If it was as simple as exerting myself too much, not sleeping enough or working too long and too hard, I’d have a day without spoons every two or three days. My morning Zumba classes would be off the menu for good and I’d have to cut down the time spent sat at the computer. But it’s not as simple as that. The spoonless day is as mysterious as the flares that typify my palindromic rheumatism and as variable and unpredictable. It comes out of the blue, often without warning, and then just disappears, just as mysteriously and often as quickly too.

It’s not always clear when I wake up how many spoons I’m going to have. Sometimes I know immediately. My head feels heavy and both mind and body feel as though they’re stuck in the deepest part of sleep even though I know I’m awake. Those are the kinds of days where it can take me two hours to muster up the mental or physical energy to leave my bed. Those are the days when I’m thankful for J who will bring me breakfast without complaint and a coffee to try and chase off the remnants of sleep. By that point, however, I know that it’s pretty much too late for me. There’s no point trying to get out of bed or to plan to do anything. There are no spoons and that’s how it is.

Other days, I don’t realise the scarcity of the spoon situation til I’ve been up a while. It’s sort of like my mind and body are on automatic. I get up and breakfast and have a coffee, and meditate (my general morning routine) and sometimes I even get as far as doing something or leaving the house before I realise I’m not quite right. In fact, I’m far from right. My legs, the ones with the power, muscle and energy to get me from home to town on my bicycle, the legs that are happy to dance for an hour to Zumba with enthusiasm and verve suddenly feel as weak as someone who hasn’t got out of bed for a month. Walking isn’t as easy as putting one foot in front of the other but is a supreme effort, like walking through treacle or heavy mud up to my knees or even my waist (though I’ve no actual first-hand experience of either). It’s like walking at altitude (and that IS something that I have experience of), when it just feels that the oxygen is not getting to the muscles to give them the fuel to work properly.

And then there’s what happens to my brain. Usually pretty quick and alert, I’m suddenly rendered pretty much incapable of forming a sentence or making a decision. I can spend ages searching for the right word, trying to pull it out of the fog clouding my memory and eventually give up as the searching is using spoons I do not have. Justin will ask me a simple question – such as whether I want a drink or what might I want to eat. I understand the question but I cannot seem to access an answer. Deciding or working out what I might want, again, uses spoons I simply do not have. I honestly do not know. Coffee is nice. I enjoy the taste, but it doesn’t give me spoons I don’t have. Often these symptoms are accompanied by a sore throat, though it isn’t always the case.

Having no spoons is like having flu. Getting out of bed to go to the toilet is an effort. I feel light headed and weak and it takes me a while to recover from the short walk from room to room. The fatigue is so overwhelming that it, in itself, is almost painful. Thinking takes spoons. Sometimes, sitting up takes spoons. I just want to close my eyes and sleep, but I know that sleep won’t restore spoons when there are none to be had that day.

On a spoonless day I know that there is nothing for it than to give in and be ‘ill’. There’s no point forcing anything or wishing it was any different. Some days are just like that. Then I’ll go to sleep at the end of the day, sleep a full night and wake up the morning. “Are they back!?” I will wonder to myself. Standing up, I realise that I have not come down with a flu or got a virus. The sore throat is gone and I feel completely normal.

My spoons are back to ‘normal’ levels again. It’s not even a partial return of spoons, but I’ve got the full complement again . My muscles have enough oxygen to work properly and my brain knows how to find the words it needs to form a sentence. The difference for me between a no spoons day and another day is pretty dramatic. And, unlike a flu or an actual virus, there is no recovery period. It’s as if the day before had never happened, and I’m back to normal again.

Thankfully the days without any spoons AT ALL aren’t that common. And they don’t always tie in with a flare– in fact, they very rarely do. There is often no flare, pain or inflammation at all. But they are part of my PR, and part of the experience of lots of others with this weird and mysterious illness. They need to be taken seriously by the medical profession as one of the symptoms of PR and need to be understood by others that it’s not just like feeling a bit tired or worn out. It’s more than that. Much more.

Happy New Year!

A short post to welcome in 2013. It’s been a relatively quiet Christmas and New Year, with only a few small flares and a few bouts of fatigue. Overall, the PR has been kind to me in 2012, and I’m hoping it will continue along in this vein for 2013.

Of course, it would be amazing if it became completely dormant during this year, but I know that’s probably too much to ask. As it is, the pain is troublesome, but mostly bearable, and the fatigue sporadic enough to allow me to keep enjoying life.

I have no particular new year’s resolutions, though there are a few things I’d like to do more of (and some, less of) in 2013.

  • I’ve bought a juicer and would like to consume more fresh fruit and vegetable juices. Still have not found any conclusive links between any food and my flares or fatigue, but I’ll continue to keep my sugar intake to a minimum. It’s healthier all round, even if it isn’t definitely linked to the PR in any way.
  • I would like to keep up doing yoga nidras (a special type of relaxing meditation that both energises AND relaxes me) and do them more often than I have been doing.
  • I keep meaning to write a post on ‘the right kind of rest’ and hopefully I’ll get round to doing that sooner in 2013 than later!
  • I also hope to be as consistent with my zumba classes as I was in 2012 – making at least one class a week.

The thing I’m looking forward to the most this year in terms of work will be co-facilitating a course for people with long-term health conditions. Called Living Well with a Long-term Condition it will be a 12 week (free) course based in south Manchester. We hope to have up to 15 participants and what we’ll cover will be totally dependent on the people taking part. This means that I can’t design a course or curriculum before the course starts,  but I’m looking forward to the challenge.  Contact me if you live locally and would like to take part.

Happy 2013!

Moving around

One of the weirdest thing about PR is that it can hit any part of the body, at any time. When I tell people that I suffer from arthritis flare ups, they tend to assume that it’s in the fingers.  While it might hit my hands, fingers, or wrists more than other joints in my body, it certainly doesn’t confine itself to there.

This weekend I’m having something of a neck flare up. The last time it flared there was last December, so it’s certainly not that common for me to have, but it’s pretty unpleasant. It hurts to move my neck in any direction, and so sleeping is particularly difficult because it’s agony in my neck every time I shift position in my sleep.  It isn’t hurting too much just so long as I don’t try and move my head position but then when I do, it’s incredibly painful. As with all my other flare ups, taking painkillers is pointless because they don’t work for my PR pain.

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