Arthritis sufferers are years away from getting personalized treatments, but they’re finding hope in new medications.
That’s important as people with arthritis, including those who’ve suffered with the autoimmune disease since infancy or young adulthood, work to heighten awareness that arthritis can affect anyone.
Their efforts come to the fore in May — National Arthritis Awareness Month. Arthritis has no cure, but medicines can help put it in remission.
“It’s always been a part of my life,” said 17-year-old Bridget Boockmeier of Oak Park, who was diagnosed at age 3 with juvenile idiopathic arthritis that affected every joint in her body except for her jaw.
Boockmeier, whose prescription for Enbrel at age 8 changed her life by easing her daily stiffness, still remembers being unable to run to first base when she started playing T-ball and riding her bike to the park when she was in pre-school because she couldn’t walk with the other children.
Now, Boockmeier plays tennis doubles and lacrosse at Trinity High School in River Forest, where she is a senior. She runs three to four miles a day.
“I have to work harder to be equal to everybody else,” she said. “It’s ended up being a benefit because that’s carried over to athletics, school work and being a good person to others.”
Boockmeier estimates that she and her family have raised $35,000 over the past decade in the Arthritis Foundation’s “Jingle Bell Run” to aid in research.
Boockmeier’s father, Andrew, said the family held out hope that Bridget would get help, even while watching her suffer such pain that she could hardly get out of bed. He advocates for the Arthritis Foundation and its programs, including a camp where teens with juvenile arthritis can spend time together.
For Monserrat Velavquez of Bridgeport, minor pain and stiffness started in her hands when she was 23 and working as a cashier. The stiffness spread to her arms so that, after six to eight months, Velavquez could no longer work or go to the grocery store to pick up a gallon of milk because she was unable to carry it.
“The thing that hit me the most was that I couldn’t put on my shoes,” she said.
Velavquez, 29, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis — an autoimmune disorder that inflames joints by causing a person’s own white blood cells to attack the joint.
When Velavquez wanted to have her fourth child – she was the mother of a son and twin girls at the time – she said she switched to a doctor at UI Health because her former doctor tried to scare her about possible harm she could do to a new baby by taking her arthritis medication.
Her new doctor at UIC – Dr. Shiva Arami, professor of clinical medicine at the UI Health’s section of rheumatology – assured her that she could have a baby safely.
In fact, Velavquez’s arthritis symptoms eased when she was pregnant, but returned after she gave birth to her now one-year-old daughter.
“The hormones that my body produced while I was pregnant made my symptoms go away,” she said. “It was a little miracle.”
She now takes Prednisone and Azathioprine. Though much of her pain is controlled, the rigidity remains, she said.
Velavquez credits her husband, Adrian Rodriguez, with being her strength and support throughout the painful journey.
Neither Velavquez nor Boockmeier have any relatives with arthritis, or any indication they could have inherited it.
The key to controlling arthritis of any kind is to see a doctor as quickly as possible after noticing any signs of pain, stiffness, or a red and swollen joint, experts say.
That’s because arthritis sufferers can get severe joint deformity, loss of joint motion and, in extreme cases, require joint replacements, if they fail to get timely treatment, Arami said.
Though people who have diabetes or an increased metabolic index may be at greater risk because they’re “in a pro-inflammatory state,” and arthritis reflects an overactive immune system, no specific diet has been proven to stave off or treat arthritis.
Hopeful research at Northwestern University shows progress in using ultrasound to biopsy tissue in patients’ wrists, knee, elbow or other inflamed joint.
The aim is to figure out what differentiates each person so doctors can determine the correct individual treatment, said Dr. Eric Ruderman, associate chief of clinical affairs in rheumatology at Northwestern Medicine.
“It’s a way forward, and could be a vast improvement from treating people with trial and error,” he said.
Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.
TYPES OF ARTHRITIS
•Juvenile Idiopathic arthritis
Nearly 300,000 children nationwide – from infants to teenagers – have some form of arthritis. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is the most common type of arthritis in children. The term idiopathic means “of unknown origin.”
Often called the wear-and-tear disease, osteoarthritis develops over time due to a breakdown of joint cartilage, the hard tissue at the end of bones that form a joint.
Cartilage serves as a shock absorber for joints. When it wears away, bones grind on bones, and the result is pain, stiffness, swelling and loss of joint function.
Twenty-seven million Americans have symptoms of osteoarthritis involving one or more joints.
Another 1.5 million or more people in the United States suffer from rheumatoid arthritis – the second most common form of arthritis.
Source: Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Alejandro Badia, an expert in the treatment of diseases of the upper limbs and joints, including disorders related to sports.