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24th June 2018

Living a full life with rheumatoid arthritis

Maths teacher Sara Hulmston shares how she reclaimed her active lifestyle after suffering from the debilitating symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

The first hint of Sara’s condition began at age 33, when the ball of her foot started hurting one day after going for a run. “It didn’t improve and I remember thinking that I surely can’t have hurt my foot from a run,” she says in a blog post on the UK’s National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) website. Over the following weeks, she developed pain in her other foot, and within a few months, her hands had become swollen and stiff. “I couldn’t bend my thumbs at all.” That was in January 2012.

Sara was soon diagnosed with fibromyalgia – which can mimic the symptoms of RA like pain, stiffness and fatigue – and was prescribed medicines accordingly. However, after several months, there was still no improvement. In fact, by summertime “I couldn’t really use my hands at all, I couldn’t lift my arms and I struggled to walk as my feet were so painful,” she recalls. At home, her husband took over all the chores as Sara was unable to do anything.

Moreover, her demanding job as a maths teacher in a secondary school was making her very tired, despite getting amazing support from everyone around her. “My colleagues would carry things for me and help me any way they could. Even the pupils would help out; I couldn’t take a lid off a pen for example.”

In July of 2012 Sara was getting progressively worse and was in constant pain. That’s when her rheumatologist decided to do magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, which are particularly useful for studying changes in bone and cartilage. “I spent over two hours having eight scans on my hands and feet,” says Sara. A few days later, she received a new diagnosis of RA and started the correct medicines immediately. The new medicine made her shoulders and neck better, but her hands and feet were still very sore and swollen.

This led her to enroll in a clinical trial for a new treatment, which to her was “like a miracle drug.” Within a month, Sara noticed an improvement, and by the end of the 2-year trial, her disease activity score (DAS) – much like a blood glucose monitoring in diabetes – had dropped from 7.5 to under 0.5, meaning she was in remission.

Since she’s got her life back, Sara has decided to do things that she couldn’t have done before. “I joined a rowing club locally and have competed in races in the Northwest. I also now have a dog and go on long walks every weekend,” she comments, noting that she enjoys doing these things now “because I can”.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Awareness Week, which runs from 18-24 June 2018, is an annual campaign designed by the NRAS to raise awareness and challenge misconceptions and attitudes people may have around RA. This year, the theme is #ReframeRA, which aims to educate and inform the public about exactly what the disease is and how it impacts those with the condition, as well as their friends, family, colleagues and health care professionals.