I Suffered With Pain For Years Before I Knew What Was Wrong

Kimberly Goad
·5 min read
Photo credit: tommaso79 - Getty Images
Photo credit: tommaso79 - Getty Images

From Woman's Day

During her final semester at the University of Georgia, Tamara Haag should’ve been doing what other 22-year-old college seniors do in the weeks and months leading up to graduation: studying for finals, interviewing for jobs, charting a bright future. Instead, she was consumed with solving a health mystery.

For 15 years, Haag had lived with joint pain and bouts of fatigue—symptoms doctors attributed to everything from sprains, cartilage deterioration, and tendonitis to chronic fatigue syndrome.

“Each time a doctor gave me a diagnosis, it would make sense at the time,” she says. “But then other symptoms would present and I would feel the scary unknown creeping in again.”

Over time, she learned to live with her mystery illness and accepted whatever it was she had as a painful fact of life—until the pain became intolerable.

“I was studying abroad at Oxford University, and for the first time my fingers, wrists, knees, and ankles all hurt and became swollen at the same time,” says Haag. “Another student in my program said, ‘Those are all joints. I wonder if you have arthritis.’ I was blown away to realize that they were all joints. I hadn’t even put that together. I just knew that I hurt all over.”

Photo credit: Tamara Haag
Photo credit: Tamara Haag

By the time she returned home from studying abroad, extreme pain matched only by overwhelming fatigue had taken over her life. “I became relentless in my search for medical answers,” says Haag. “I went from doctor to doctor—general practitioners, an orthopedist, and finally a rheumatologist—until I received a diagnosis that encompassed all the symptoms I was experiencing.”

That diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that occurs when the immune system doesn’t work properly and attacks the lining of the joints—commonly those in the hands, wrists, and knees.

If not for the fact that her symptoms matched those of classic RA, Haag might not have believed the diagnosis. “Like many people, I associated arthritis only with older people,” she says. “I thought of what I now know is osteoarthritis, caused by wear and tear or intense, repetitive use. I had no idea that your own immune system could attack your joints.”

Like the estimated 1.5 million people in the U.S. who are affected by RA, however, there was nothing Haag could have done to prevent getting the disease, no matter how young or otherwise healthy she was. Rheumatoid arthritis can happen to anyone, though it most commonly develops in middle age and women are two to three times more likely than men to develop it.

“While discovering that I had a degenerative autoimmune disease with no cure was really difficult to cope with, receiving the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis opened up additional treatment options for me,” she says. Her rheumatologist prescribed corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory drugs made to replicate the hormone cortisol, which is naturally produced by the adrenal glands), which immediately reduced the swelling in her joints. And after trying an immunosuppressive she was unable to tolerate, she was prescribed a biologic (a class of drug made or containing components of living organisms). Within weeks, she was able to live what she calls a “normal life for a 20-something,” meeting friends for lunch, going out dancing, and traveling.

In the name of having the best quality of life possible, she set out to learn everything she could about RA. “I read again and again that exercise was important for good outcomes with this disease, in spite of the pain it could involve,” says Haag. “My rheumatologist advised me that some pain during exercise was okay, but if it still hurt two hours later that meant I’d overdone it.”

After a lot of trial and error, she found the level of exercise that was enough to keep her strong and maintain her range of motion without sending her into a flare. She also sussed out the types of exercise that felt good to her body, swapping kickboxing and soccer for lower-impact activities like biking, swimming, power walking, and yoga.

She’s also gotten a handle on the extent to which stress can exacerbate her symptoms. “In the 20 years since my diagnosis, I have been able to achieve all of my goals, although RA has frequently impacted my timeline,” she says. For instance, she needed an extra semester to finish her bachelor’s degree, but then went on to earn her master’s. And working as a social worker coordinating a school district’s homeless education program eventually gave way to less stressful work as a freelance editor.

She’s reaped the rewards of listening to her body. Her symptoms have improved so significantly she now takes just one medication for her RA.

“The biggest lesson I have learned in my 20 years with RA is that my body is not the enemy, rather it is my most trusted friend,” says Haag, who lives in Athens, Georgia with her husband and their two kids. “For so long, I viewed my immune system as a traitor targeting friendly fire at my joints. Over time, I’ve come to understand that my immune system is not malicious, it is confused.

“As I have learned to love my body, I have also learned to trust it,” she adds. “When my body is tired, instead of resenting it, I thank it for telling me it needs rest. I respect the messages it gives me.”

You Might Also Like