Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a serious autoimmune disease. It causes the body’s defenses to attack joints by mistake. Nobody knows exactly why.

The heart and lungs can be affected, too. RA can put too much pressure on blood vessels or lead to lung scarring and shortness of breath.

If not caught early, rheumatoid arthritis is likely to cause great pain, inflammation, deformities, disability or even early death.

There is no cure for this disease, but RA experts think its impact can be greatly reduced if caught early. So those who suspect they have the disease are strongly urged to fight early and hard for a clear answer. 

Kelly Young, president of the Rheumatoid Patient Foundation and an active advocate for RA patients, first had RA symptoms at age 13 when her hands stiffened. She thought “rheumatoid arthritis” at once.

Most people probably wouldn’t have, but her grandfather had RA. So when she had clenched fists that she had to pry open to get her fingers loose, it popped into her head.

Kelly asked many doctors about the possibility that she had RA. But she wasn’t correctly diagnosed until 2006. By then, she was a mother of five.

Kelly says she now has RA in every joint. She says at times, the disease triggers “pain like childbirth.”

Early, Aggressive RA Treatment Brings Hope

More and more now, experts are recommending early, aggressive treatment for RA.

The Mayo Clinic and other experts say you should go to a doctor to check for rheumatoid arthritis when you first have persistent discomfort and swelling in your joints. It usually begins in the toes and fingers and in the same joints on both sides of the body. 

Kelly notes that the American College of Rheumatology reports that “it’s growing clearer that treatment must be early and aggressive” for best results.

The Arthritis Foundation says thorough medical histories and physical exams are the key to catching juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA). Parents whose kids have fevers and rashes for several weeks should suspect JRA.

Often, when RA is tackled in childhood, full remission can occur, and disease episodes called flares can be fewer and less severe.

Kelly might suffer less today if she had been diagnosed early. But she fights back any way she can. She set up the Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior website and the Rheumatoid Patient Foundation.

The foundation’s goals are to increase awareness, support patient advocacy for disability accommodations and targeted government action, and contribute to and promote scientific discovery that leads to a cure.

What Can You Do to Help RA?

The Arthritis Foundation and the American College of Rheumatology urge all arthritis patients to jump in the water. Water buoyancy supports body weight, reducing joint stress and pain.

You should also exercise as much as you can and focus your diet on fish, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Those with RA may also be put on an anti-RA drug plan set by their doctors.

And last but not least, humor can help. 

“I’ve had to decide whether to make lemonade out of RA lemons or take the ‘woe is me’ road,” Kelly says. “I think laughter helps any situation. It does for me. So I hope my humor on rawarrior.com lifts spirits for others, too.”

She calls Lucille Ball, who had RA, a “funny girl’s idol.” Kelly says Ball showed that a woman can be goofy and successful at the same time.

Kelly said she once had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” to a medical treatment. But later, “No one else did it for me; so I had to learn to drag myself. It was a long and harsh journey.”