One of the things I frequently read from other RA bloggers is their frustration – and
sometimes, anger – when others, upon hearing that they have RA, respond with “Oh, I have that too! I have it in my knee/fingers/hips. I just take some Tylenol and it goes away.”
Gahhhh! That response can make us feel that they’re dismissing our pain, suffering and even disability. We’re hurt and humiliated. It’s as if they’re saying we’re being whiny babies about the kind of pain that nearly everyone has. The inference is that we ought to just shut up, grin and bear it. After all, if we’d just take Tylenol we’d be fine.
I’ve had this happen time after time since I was diagnosed with RA. I’ve felt hurt and embarrassed. Dumb. More often than not I’ve bitten down on my frustration and kept my bitter remarks to myself, only to replay them endlessly when I’m alone, complete with witty retorts. How, I’ve wondered, can people be so freaking callous? So plainly unsympathetic? So … so … incurious?
Well, maybe they’re not.
It’s just part of my nature to be generally forgiving of such comments, unless I’m sure that the response really is dismissive and uncaring. It’s just how I’m made. I believe that most people really do care about me, but perhaps they just don’t know what to say when I complain about my pain and frustration. The aggravating response, “Oh, I have that too” is more often actually a form of empathetic commiseration. It’s clumsy, but it’s not dismissive or insensitive. Of course there are people I’ve encountered who really didn’t care and thought I was just wanting attention and being a crybaby, but that’s another issue entirely.
Assuming that’s not the case, the ball is back in my court. It’s time for me to ask if they have osteoarthritis. If they do, then it’s up to me to explain the difference between it and rheumatoid arthritis. They really are apples and oranges. But as I do, I should also be sure to return their awkward commiseration and sympathy. We all need that when we hurt.
Because, to be fair, osteoarthritis can also be dreadfully painful. It can be disabling. It most certainly is frustrating to the sufferer, as well. The big difference is that someone with osteoarthritis can, oftentimes, relieve the pain with a mild analgesic like Tylenol. If my RA flare is mild, and I’m lucky, sometimes Tylenol is enough for me, too. And while there are many treatments for RA that can successfully minimize the pain and damage by slowing the disease down, perhaps avoiding disablement – or even sending the disease into remission – there’s pretty much nothing that can be done for osteoarthritis outside of temporary relief through analgesics or joint replacement.
Finding the fountain of youth might work.
Osteoarthritis is a natural consequence of aging. Time and gravity do their worst to just about all of us; with osteoarthritis it causes the cartilage around the joints to break down, and over time, the ends of the bones start grinding against each other. Their surfaces grow pitted and rough. And naturally, the area becomes inflamed and often very painful.
Fortunately, Tylenol and other mild, over-the-counter analgesics and NSAIDs can and do relieve some of the pain and inflammation of osteoarthritis, for a while at least.
My rheumatologist tells me that I probably have osteoarthritis in some joints in addition to RA, and even if I don’t right now, at some point in my life, I probably will. So I don’t know what that particular pain is like. But the next time someone says “Oh, I have that too,” I’m going to be quicker to give them the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to try harder to empathize. And if I can, I’m going to explain the difference between my RA and the simple, mostly unavoidable wear-and-tear on the joints that everyone suffers as they grow older.
I believe we should all be as informed as we can be, not only about rheumatoid arthritis, but about osteoarthritis, which is far more common. It’s good – and humbling – to remember that we’re not alone. Perhaps by becoming more empathetic ourselves, we’ll teach others to be that way, too.