Somebody recently asked me what triggers my condition and what do I do to stay fit and active. Although a lot of the paths our chronic diseases take are beyond our control, it did make me think about those little things we all do to try and avoid additional issues or spikes in symptoms.
Therefore, I thought I’d share my personal list but please note that as with all these types of things, what works well for me, might not for you – a classic example is hot vs cold- where a heat pack might help some, it could cause more inflammation or discomfort for others so please keep this in mind when applying this advice.
And finally, yes, some of these are obvious but we all get complacent with long term health conditions occasionally.
- Avoid alcohol – This seems like an obvious one but I can’t tell you how much I suffer when having a few drinks. It makes my skin itch more, my face flush, ears swell (weirdly) and I’ll always feel more lousy the next day, even if its just a couple of pints (it doesn’t seem to matter to me if its 2 pints or 10, the effects sadly are the same). I’ve had arthritis since I was 11 but this has only been an issue since I’ve had the psoriatic form so whether that’s what changed or if it coincides with taking biologics, it no longer agrees with me.
- Move more! – Another obvious one but I do get frustrated when people don’t help themselves. In the last 10 years, my condition has probably been as challenging as when I was in a wheelchair as a child (less responsibilities then!) but in that time I’ve ran the Great North Run Half Marathon (with a hugely swollen ankle and two cracked ribs), played decent level league rugby and completed the RideLondon 100 mile cycle sportive. Yes it hurt like hell, yes I broke things doing it and had time off work after the event but I was a much happier and healthy person having something to focus on to get out of bed in the morning. Some days will be too much and you need to know when to skip training and stay in bed (listen to your body!) but the biggest mistake I’ve made during a flare is completely immobilising myself (normally whilst being a little depressed as well, which is natural). It makes things 10x harder and the mental side plays a big part too. By always having something to focus on, no matter what the size-it can be as simple a 1 mile walk with the dog each day or a shopping trip with friends – you are more likely to keep the joints moving, avoid fluid build up and more importantly keep in a positive frame of mind. My attitude: might as well go down swinging, right?
- Work out what foods work for you – Another important one but often overlooked. Some people swear by tumeric in their diet, others avoid spicy food and as previously mentioned in my case, alcohol. Everyone is different but it is important for you to take note of what helps and what hinders your condition. Keep a diary for a couple of months if you have to – writing down meals and then scoring your pain and stiffness each day on a scale of 1-10 to see if there is any correlation between the good and the bad days. Also, remember it’s easy to focus on what causes problems and flares but think about what makes you feel good too – you would have by now picked up on the theme of positivity in this post – with chronic conditions it is shit sometimes, it is unfair and bloody frustrating and that’s acceptable but don’t let the situation cloud your judgement and get into a rut of saying ‘this flares my arthritis’ or ‘I’ll regret this tomorrow’ – think about the things that help too. For me with food and drink, it’s eating lots of green vegetables, especially broccoli and leafy greens, lots of fruit but avoiding things too acidic, (a lot of orange juice, for example, certainly seems to make me ache more the next day, especially in my hands, along with eating pineapple), minimise fizzy drinks (I’m terrible for this but 4 cans of pepsi is going to make my joints ache more the next day) and drinking lots of skimmed milk – I would love full fat milk but when you are actively consuming a few glasses a day, I tend to need to go for the healthy option now I’m the wrong side of 30!
- Take action early – Now I am a complete hypocrite with this one as my wife is always twisting my ear over not addressing a flare or problem area early enough. Whether it’s taking and building up that pain relief early, getting down the pool, taking hot baths or exercising; if you know something is kicking off in a joint or the pain levels are starting to rise, do something about it. It might be completely out of your control but if like me you’ll lose count (and get a lot of eye rolling from the other half) how many times you say ‘I wish I took those painkillers earlier’ or ‘why didn’t I move it more last week’ etc. Sometimes it’s a mood thing and you focus on the issue itself and be miserable about it (that’s completely allowed by the way, see Point 5!) other times it’s denial, but the important thing is knowing when to do something about it – and if it does spiral and you end up in front of your Dr at least you can tell them everything you threw at it to try and address. It not only feels good to be proactive but they are much more likely to help those that help themselves and promptly, as per point 2.
- Set limits on your ‘feeling sorry for yourself time’ – this is a proper little mantra of mine that no doubt you will hear a lot of on this blog but I swear by it. As previously mentioned, living with chronic illnesses sucks, especially when that includes chronic pain. It’s uncomfortable, makes the days bloody long, makes you short with your friends and family, frustrated and you inevitably end up feeling sorry for yourself – and so you should, what did you do to deserve being in pain all the time, having limited opportunities and your fingers warped into something that represents a bag of wonky carrots that even Tesco wouldn’t put on their shelves!? However, although it’s healthy and perfectly understandable to have a good rant, be grumpy and slip into depression over your situation on occasion, I find by setting limits on these ‘mopey days’ and being mindful of when to try and be positive, will minimise the impact of low mood and avoid your condition defining you. You arthritis is not what makes you, you – it might be a big part of you, it might even have positives and (as in my case) made you more stubborn and determined but don’t ever let the condition define you, only compliment you. It’s important to note here that not everything is fixed by saying ‘right, I’ve had my day of feeling sorry for yourself, time to crack on’ and that won’t always be possible, like me, anyone with long term health challenges is going to flirt with depression, anxiety and low mood on occasion and sometimes no amount of positive mental attitude is going to fix that so when that’s the case, please see your doctor for help. This next bit of advice is what I do on a month to month basis but does not apply to those really dark times (which I will talk about in a future blog post, I’m sure) so if you are in that position, please get help and don’t let anyone tell you to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘pull yourself together’ as it’s really not that simple, trust me, I know. So now that’s said this is what I do – I allow myself one ‘feeling sorry for myself’ day/weekend (its usually weekends as that’s when the body will stop me playing sport, being with my mates and doing what I love) a month. After that, it’s time to try and do something about it to break the cycle. That might be something with family or friends, a simple dog walk, additional medication or even a takeaway and Netflix night – anything that I enjoy that’s going to help me find some happiness and take my mind off the situation and make me feel like I did something about it. The best thing about this approach is that my wife knows my little rule so on the day/weekend, she keeps her distance, lets me ride it out, doesn’t try to pick me up or give me a hard time over it but the minute that window closes, you bet she’s coming down on me like a tonne of bricks to get my backside off the sofa or out of bed! 🙂 It works surprisingly well by allowing me to have my moment (seems to be more of a man/dented pride thing after I can’t do something) and lets family know when to push me – mutual understanding. Where it also works well is as an early warning system – so for example, if that weekend turns into a week then everyone knows I need to be getting help from my GP.
I really hope something in there helped or peaked your interest and I make no apology for it getting a little dark in places; mental health and wellbeing are part of living with a chronic physical condition and I learned the hard way in my 20’s what can happen if you ignore or don’t accept and address that. If anything you read in this post affected you or you wish to speak to somebody, I have posted some links below for those in the UK – please feel free to leave a comment for support outlets in other parts of the world or drop me a message and I will find you a source of support. Keep smiling and stay positive – it’s amazing how much easier things get when it feels like (at least some elements of) the condition is within your control 🙂
A list of NHS Recommended Mental Health Helplines for stress, anxiety and depression: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/
Versus Arthritis Helpline: 0800 5200 520