health

Only a fool would ignore these symptoms

Three years ago I was a 40-year-old mother of two with a successful blog, an adoring husband and an inability to get out of bed in the morning.

Oh, who am I kidding? Once I got out of bed all I did was land on the sofa and wait for the day to end because this strange sort of malaise had crept slowly over me.

What I'm about to reveal to you is going to sound insane. You'll think for a moment that I'm completely out of touch with my body and that only a fool could ignore the symptoms I was having. But its very typical, particularly for busy women and mothers who have created lifestyles for themselves where their own health is easily ignored.

You see my symptoms, though not uncommon, were easy for me to dismiss. My hands hurt quite a bit but I'm a blogger and I was pretty sure that it was just carpal tunnel syndrome from typing. Naturally I didn't have this diagnosed but Dr Google (who is a horrendous physician) had given me the diagnosis so I just added a little more Yoga to my life and lived with some measure of discomfort.

My hands eventually began to sort of curl up. It didn't happen quickly, in fact the analogy I use is like when you put a frog in water and slowly turn up the heat. The incremental increases in pain are easy to ignore so by the time I finally got myself to a specialist for a proper diagnosis, I'd learned that I could take a sleeping pill, flatten my hands out under my belly and sleep through the pain of uncurling them. I didn't want to stop blogging and lose my livelihood. I didn't want to admit that I had carpal tunnel (which I ultimately didn't have).

Interestingly enough what brought me to my physician was an overwhelming fatigue. I'd wake up in the morning and sort of play games with myself, promising myself a nap if only I'd get up and bring the kids to school. As I lay there one morning negotiating with myself I decided that I was clinically depressed because there was no other reason for me to be stuck in bed not wanting to attack the day. I wasn’t going upstairs much, instead I was asking my kids to fetch things if I needed them and we were all living with an illness that had no name.

I strode into my physicians office explaining to him that I needed an antidepressant. Fortunately for me he looked at my curled fingers and sent me to a hand specialist right away. The hand specialist had me visiting a rheumatologist before I could catch my breath.

It's easy for me to go back in time and remember the moments where my rheumatologist was explaining to me that my symptoms were, in fact, rheumatoid arthritis. When I replay it in my mind its always in slow motion and the words autoimmune disorder and rheumatoid are long and drawn out and its like I can see his mouth making the sounds and feel part of myself escaping my body because its absolutely unthinkable that my very own immune system would turn on me and deliver an assault the likes of which I'd endured during the last few years. That's right, I said years.

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Being told that you have a chronic disease is life altering, not because you suddenly have a disease, but because you suddenly become a patient. Treatment options can be overwhelming.  There are low doses of medicines that are used to treat cancer, anti malarials, steroids, anti inflammatories and disease modifying biologics. I've taken various combinations of all of the above and opted to attempt to arrest my disease with biologics. At diagnosis I was still in my 30’s raising two kids and these joints need to last another 50 years. I don't have time to mess around with what could ultimately become irreversible damage.

As a blogger and a mother I ended up chronicling this entire journey both on my own site and on various other sites like twitterFacebookG+ and (unwittingly) foursquare (I check in to a lot of healthcare providers). I've found support from my readers who have also learned to inject themselves. Entire forums exist where I've learned a few tips and tricks for maneuvering in the world with fragile joints without freaking my kids out. Videos walked me through injections when I thought I'd simply collapse from fear (hint: it's fine. I've even made a video about how easy it can be).

In the years since my diagnosis I’ve had dozens of people call, email and text me about their own ailments and my advice is always the same, “Get to the best Doctor you can find.” Yes, you can take some over the counter pain relievers for a short time and coffee might perk you up a bit, but busy mothers are very guilty of caring for themselves last of all. I’ve learned that rheumatoid arthritis and related diseases are progressive. With an early intervention it may be possible to live pain free into old age. Once joint damage is done, it’s done and I’m ever so grateful that my years of denial were brought to an abrupt halt with medical intervention. An untrained eye wouldn’t even spot the swelling in my knuckles and if you’re achy and fatigued like I was it’s possible that you’re just tired from Mum’ing (which can be a fatigue inducing profession), but it’s also possible that you’ve got autoimmune issues and early aggressive treatments have given me my life back.

So be sure to visit the doctor if any of this sounds familiar and remember that mums need to make our own healthcare a high priority.

Jessica Gottliebis a world -renowned blogger based in the US and has been named by Forbes as one of the ‘14 Power Women to follow on Twitter’. She is a wife, mother of two, dog-owner and lives with rheumatoid arthritis, which she often blogs about at http://jessicagottlieb.com/

*Jessica was sponsored by AbbVie to present at the Australian Rheumatology Association Conference this May, 2013.

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