Too Young for This’ Young Adults with RA Diagnosis

Too Young for This' Young Adults with RA Diagnosis

Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Journey of Hope and Resilience


Lane Taylor was just 23 years old, working as a health center assistant, when her life took an unexpected turn. Suddenly, her joints became unbearably painful, forcing her to type with just one finger of each hand. “My fingers were red and swollen like a mild bee sting,” she recalls. “They hurt all the time.” She even experienced sharp stabs in her knees, causing her to give up her beloved tennis games.

Despite being dismissed by one rheumatologist, Taylor’s medical knowledge, gained from a previous cancer diagnosis at age 20, led her to do her own research. She became convinced that she had rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. “Wow, you’re too young for this [diagnosis],” was a phrase she regularly heard from doctors. Thankfully, when Taylor consulted a second rheumatologist, the swelling in her finger joints was impossible to ignore. She started treatment, which included hydroxychloroquine and later methotrexate, and experienced almost immediate relief. “The swelling went down pretty quickly, and the pain went away,” she says. “I was able to resume normal activities.”

Taylor’s experience reflects the challenges faced by many young people living with RA. As Kimberley DeQuattro, MD, explains, “If you’re a young person, in the midst of trying to have a career and develop your life trajectory, it can be jarring. You don’t anticipate getting sidelined by a chronic condition.” However, there is hope. Early diagnosis and advancements in treatment options have made it possible for people with RA to achieve remission, even in the prime of their lives.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease with a growing prevalence. According to the World Health Organization, in 2019, there were 18 million people worldwide living with RA, and that number is expected to increase by approximately 1% each year. Women are two to three times more likely than men to develop RA. However, thanks to medical progress, young adults with RA can now receive increased support and reassurance.

Detecting and addressing RA early is crucial. Rheumatologists emphasize that key symptoms include pain and swelling in the smaller joints of both hands, wrists, or feet. Theodore R. Fields, MD, an attending rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, explains, “The reason to get treatment started early is that our medications can not only reduce or stop symptoms such as fatigue, stiffness, and joint swelling and pain, but they can also reduce or stop damage to bone.”

While the exact cause of RA is still under study, researchers believe that a genetic predisposition can be triggered by environmental factors such as cigarette smoking and dust inhalation. RA diagnosis is typically made based on physical exams, blood tests to look for specific autoantibodies, and other diagnostic imaging studies like ultrasounds, X-rays, and MRIs. Since RA is essentially an autoimmune civil war within the body, the goal of treatment is to quickly calm the inflammatory response using disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and steroids to reduce inflammation.

RA can affect the whole person, causing fatigue, occasional fevers, loss of appetite, and, if left untreated, progress to disabling pain and joint swelling. It can also damage other organs, including the heart, lungs, nerves, eyes, and skin. However, younger patients typically have fewer comorbidities, making their treatment journey slightly less complicated. On the other hand, women of reproductive age need to discuss family planning with their rheumatologists, as some RA medications, such as methotrexate, are unsafe during pregnancy.

To manage RA effectively, lifestyle changes become essential. Nilanjana Bose, MD, a rheumatologist at Lonestar Rheumatology in Houston, advises her patients about potential triggers for the disease and promotes healthy habits to maintain symptom control. Poor diet, lack of exercise, and stress can all contribute to flare-ups of RA. She states, “You cannot just take medication and hope for a miracle.” The American College of Rheumatology “conditionally” recommends a Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, with limited sugars, sodium, and processed foods.

DeQuattro encourages her patients to be open about their RA with their employers, friends, and family members. She also suggests seeking the support of psychologists or psychiatrists to help cope with the emotional challenges of the diagnosis. Building a strong support system and being proactive in self-advocacy are essential for managing the disease successfully.

Lane Taylor, now 36, offers her support and advice to others who find themselves living with RA. She emphasizes the importance of sharing one’s experience openly and finding a circle of friends who actively listen and support. After her diagnosis, Taylor started practicing yoga and eventually became a yoga instructor. She hasn’t experienced an RA flare-up in years. With a well-managed treatment plan, self-advocacy, and a strong support network, Taylor remains hopeful and optimistic about her journey. “My RA is well-managed,” she says. “I cross my fingers – and that was one of the things I couldn’t do before.”