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TRUE STORY: "At 35, I couldn't even tie my shoelaces because of rheumatoid arthritis!"

One woman’s struggle with rheumatoid arthritis.

She lived in pain and struggled with rheumatoid arthritis for years before getting diagnosed. By Dawn Chen

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis usually affects smaller joints – fingers, wrists and feet – first, causing them to become stiff, swollen and painful. Photo: staras / www.123rf.com

Imagine not being able to perform simple tasks like holding your newborn baby, or lifting your car’s handbrake. These situations were reality for Shila D/O Madhavan, 42, who experienced bouts of hand weakness and pain back in 2009. She didn’t know it then, but those were the early warning signs of rheumatoid arthritis. 

As the disease typically affects women over 40, or those with a family history of the illness, it never crossed Shila’s mind that she could be suffering from something more sinister. Having undergone carpal tunnel surgery for a compressed nerve in her right hand earlier in 2009, Shila thought the weakness and tingling were just the beginning of carpal tunnel syndrome again. “I brushed the pain off as hand cramps, and didn’t think much about it,” says Shila. (Also read: Get your boost of daily nutrients from the superfood broccoli)

Over time, the symptoms grew worse. “The pain and weakness in my hands were so bad that I felt handicapped,” says Shila. “At that point, I couldn’t tie my shoelaces, cut an apple, or even turn on the car’s ignition without struggling,” she adds. Though she constantly suffered from the discomfort, it was only two years later in 2011 that she went to see her orthopaedic surgeon – who previously performed carpal tunnel surgery for her – again. This time, he referred Shila to a rheumatologist. It was then that blood tests confirmed she had rheumatoid arthritis. 

According to Dr Lui Nai Lee, specialist rheumatologist at Lui Centre for Arthritis & Rheumatology, Gleneagles Medical Centre, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where one’s own immune system mistakenly attacks its own body tissue, typically at the joints. This chronic inflammatory condition usually affects smaller joints – fingers, wrists and feet – first, causing them to become stiff, swollen and painful. Other symptoms include fatigue, irritability, anaemia, feeling hotter than usual and feeling generally unwell. “Due to its subtle symptoms, RA can be difficult to diagnose,” says Dr Lui. 

Once someone has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, treatment usually begins immediately to slow down the progression of the disease. This includes medication – either taken orally or through intravenous (IV) administration – or surgery in severe cases. The sooner the condition is detected and treated, the better the results and outcome. And while there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, the disease can be managed and controlled so that it doesn’t affect daily life. (Also read: What's causing your headaches, chest pains, or stomach pains?)

Shila currently gets a dose of IV medication every one-and-a-half months, and goes for blood tests every three months to ensure her rheumatoid factors are under control. With treatment, her life is back to normal. Since her diagnosis, Shila has also been a strong advocate for early detection of rheumatoid arthritis. “It took a while before I got diagnosed as I didn’t fit the typical profile of an rheumatoid arthritis patient,” she says. “But in reality, rheumatoid arthritis can affect anyone and people need to know that.” 

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