Don't Let Arthritis Stop You From Running and Exercising
Updated: Jan 5
Photo by Jon Gilbert
PAINFUL STIFFNESS AND TENDERNESS
I have had my bouts with two of the over 100 forms of arthritis: synovitis and rheumatoid arthritis. My first experience with joint stiffness occurred after the birth of my first born. A few weeks after giving birth, I had difficulty going up and down the staircase at home. I walked the steps sideways so I wouldn't have to bend my painful knees. My feet hurt. My fingers were painfully stiff. My elbows and wrists felt tender and painful to the touch and movement. I'd wake up completely stiff. Squeezing the toothpaste tube and brushing my teeth was a challenge.
At my six week postpartum visit, my ob/gyn asks how I am doing. I say I love being a new mom but that I am having painful stiffness and tenderness through out my body. I move with some difficulty. I say I am not too worried. I am sure that my body is just exhausted from breast-feeding and pumping milk every 3 - 4 hours. He assures me breastfeeding is not the cause of my symptoms. He refers me to an internist. A couple of days after I see the internist, he calls to share that my rheumatoid factor - the proteins produced by my immune system and now attacking my body - is out of normal range. He refers me to a rheumatologist. He urges me to see the rheumatologist as soon as possible. Initially, he thinks I might have lupus.
By the time I see the rheumatologist, my symptoms have progressed. My wrist and fingers are swollen. More blood tests are conducted. The rheumatologist concludes I do not have lupus and not quite rheumatoid arthritis (RA) but synovitis - inflammation of the synovial fluid around my joints. He prescribes Prednisone. I pass on it. I read about the side effects. I am nursing and do not want to pass this steroid onto my infant daughter. I endure the painful discomfort, movement, and difficulty sleeping. Eight weeks later I am feeling better. The stiffness is gone. Painless movement returns. I start running to help keep my body moving and stiff-free. When my daughter is two, I run my first 5K.
THE TOUCH-TONE PHONE
Flash forward seven years later. I now have two children. By now I have run several 5Ks, 6 half-marathons, and 2 marathons. I wake up one summer morning with a stiff neck. Two days later I wake up with intensely painful swollen fingers and wrists, and a stiff neck that have me crying. I am scared. I reach for the phone to call my doctor but I am unable to press the numbers on the keypad of my touch-tone phone. The pain is overwhelming. I struggle to dial with a pencil. By the time I see my rheumatologist, the stiffness, pain, and inflammation has spread to my knees, hips, elbows, and feet. I am unable to squeeze the toothpaste tube, brush my teeth, and button my shirts. I am unable to walk normally and run. My children and my husband help me to get up from a sitting position.
I am prescribed Daypro and Voltaren, both non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. I get no relief. Finally, I give in and take Prednisone. Within three days, my abdomen expands and my face looks fuller - both side effects. I immediately stop taking Prednisone. Soon thereafter, I notice I gained 10 pounds. More body weight is never good for joints. I vow never to ingest Prednisone again. It took almost a year to shed those ten pounds.
CHANGED MY DIET AND DUMPED THE MEDS
My most recent bout with arthritis took place in the summer of 2013. This time, I am diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). I am convinced the RA is a delayed complication of Cipro, the potentially dangerous antibiotic that should not be given to athletes and runners. I was given Cipro for a urinary tract infection (UTI) I acquired as a result of a left kidney nephrostomy. I become incapacitated. My husband squeezes the toothpaste for me. He helps to brush my teeth and hair. He helps me dress for about eight months. You can read about my nightmare with this medication error here.
I see a new rheumatologist. He prescribes Methotrexate. I get no relief. He adds Plaquenil to the Methotrexate. Still no relief. But my years of running (by now I have finished 10 ultramarathons), have taught me to keep moving. I know I need to keep walking. My body knows to progress to slow running. I had been training for a 24 hour ultra when I was diagnosed. In July 2013, I manage to complete 64.3 miles at the Around the Lake 24 hour ultra.
I change my diet and dump the meds. I stop eating foods that cause inflammation: processed foods, wheat, flour, sugar, dairy, pasta, rice, and beans. I start eating Paleo. My stiffness and painful joints are no more. My rheumatoid factor is now in the normal range. I am fortunate that 30 years after giving birth to my first born and my first bout with one form of arthritis, I am still running today. There is no guarantee that synovitis and RA won't flare up again.
EXERCISE AND RUNNING TIPS
There are many forms of arthritis. If you are having symptoms and your quality of life is affected, see a rheumatologist. Some types of arthritis are more severe than others. Every person is different. To cope with rheumatoid arthritis and ease discomfort, doctors and experts recommend various tips and types of movement and exercise. If you are a runner and have rheumatoid arthritis, there are other physical activities to engage in. There are plenty of runners who suffer various forms of arthritis and continue to run. Below are just three of the many websites/blogs that provide advice, tips, and inspiration for runners with arthritis.