When Lisa Gardner of Rexburg introduces herself to a new acquaintance, she shares a little trick to make her name memorable:
“Remember ‘Mona Lisa in the Garden.’”
Likewise, she comes up with similar memory tricks to remember the names of the people she meets. She’s a clever, resourceful woman — attributes that have served her well as she has battled rheumatoid arthritis for most of her life.
Now 69 years old, Gardner was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 26, but she remembers symptoms starting around age 14. Her first memory of symptoms was doing housework as a teenager and finding that her hands were stiff afterward.
“I cleaned the floor, and my hands just did not go back,” she says.
Gardner admits that arthritis does make some things harder, but she says she doesn’t allow that to bring her down. She is perpetually cheerful and infectiously friendly.
“It doesn’t make me sad,” she says. “It doesn’t stop me from being me.”
In fact, her longtime fight with RA has pushed her to develop strengths and talents that help her stay ahead of the disease.
An artistically gifted person, she plays the cello to keep her hands strong. She paints to keep them moving and has a gallery of her own work on display at her home. She plays the piano to encourage more extension in her fingers. She has a bachelor’s degree in dance and teaches classes in her home to connect with others while maintaining her own strength and agility. She also gives singing lessons and recently played a nun in Rexburg Community Theatre’s production of “The Sound of Music,” which required her to keep up physically with the demands of the show.
Gardner has a go-to joke for children who notice her hands, which are visibly affected by her arthritis: “I jumped out of an airplane, and my parachute didn’t open,” she jokes, followed by a suggestion that, “Maybe you could grow up to be the doctor that finds the cure for it.”
One sadness Gardner has experienced comes from her observation that “a lot of people, when they see a handicapped person, think they’re not smart, and that has been sad.”
She does what she can to dispel those assumptions and to teach people “not to just disregard them.”
Oct. 12 is World Arthritis Day, which is meant to bring awareness to what Arthritis.org says is the country’s No. 1 cause of disability. There are several types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis and psoriatic arthritis, with a variety of symptoms and causes, but Gardner has some well-earned wisdom to share that can help across the arthritis spectrum.
Keep a food journal
Gardner says that keeping a food journal and tracking arthritis symptoms has been helpful in managing her own arthritis pain, a sentiment echoed by Dr. Anthony Joseph of Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello, who also put diet as the top behavioral factor affecting arthritis pain.
“The No. 1 modifiable risk that we know of, looking at large populations, is weight and weight loss,” Joseph says. “Weight or obesity is one of the most modifiable risk factors, and it may be the reason why this is moving up into a younger population because people carry more weight, and they put more stress on their hips or knees.”
Joseph says consuming a less-inflammatory diet and avoiding smoking can ease arthritis symptoms.
“Foods that are more plant-based, vegetable-based, and certain foods that are good for your joints may include things like avocados and soybeans, and things that have good oils in them that are less inflammatory,” Joseph says.
Along with a healthy diet, Gardner supplements with vitamins and natural supplements, something Joseph calls “nutraceuticals.”
“In addition to diet, we have patients take supplements,” Joseph says, naming turmeric, specifically, as a natural and effective anti-inflammatory. He also suggests glucosamine, which has anti-inflammatory and cartilage-protecting effects.
“These are almost like drugs but not quite,” Joseph says, noting that for some patients, the natural remedies are all they’ll need.
“Most people will come in, and their hands feel better and less stiff in the morning,” he says. “That’s the start.”
Keep exercising, keep moving
Gardner stays active by dancing and walking, a habit that Joseph says is vital to preventing or controlling arthritis pain.
“There was a study done on Danish women, and they looked at women that had arthritis. They measured the amount of cartilage they had in their knees, and some of the women exercised, and some didn’t,” Joseph says. “At the end of the study, the women that exercised maintained their cartilage more than the women that didn’t exercise. So there is a protective benefit to exercise.”
Joseph says weight-bearing exercise, especially, tends to maintain that protective cartilage.
“I lived through an era where people said, ‘Well, if you have arthritis, don’t run or jog,’ and that myth has been debunked,” Joseph says. “It really doesn’t create arthritis. A lot of people that have arthritis will stop running because it does hurt, but it’s not the cause. I encourage people to walk or hike or do things like that to maintain the cartilage they have.”
Physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around the joints can also make a big difference for those suffering from arthritis.
“If you haven’t worked on the strength around that joint for a long time, going to physical therapy to strengthen that joint is probably going to help you,” Joseph says. “Muscles are shock absorbers for the joint. They take the stress load off the joint. That’s how our muscular system is devised, so learning how to strengthen the thigh muscles for knee arthritis has been proven to help with knee-related symptoms.”
Find a good doctor
“The earlier you can treat it, the better.”
Gardner says finding a good doctor and taking care of your health is key to maintaining an active lifestyle with arthritis.
Joseph agrees, and says that the sooner a person talks to a doctor about the pain, the better. He suggests that if a person has continuous pain for three months, it’s time to talk to a doctor.
“The earlier you can treat it, the better, in that we do have some preventative measures that may help,” Joseph says. “You don’t want it to go too far.”
If clean eating and nutraceuticals don’t help enough, a doctor can help with medications, injections or surgery. Joseph says new medical technology called orthobiologics can use the patient’s own blood or bone marrow, spun down in a machine and injected, to promote healing.
“We are trying some different avenues, using the body’s own healing processes to stop the arthritis,” Joseph says.
He says it’s important for a patient to see a physician who’s qualified to administer these treatments.
“It’s very important that patients, if they’re going to go down that avenue, find someone who’s reputable and follows the science of that sort of treatment and doesn’t just dabble in it,” he says. “It’s very important that the patients use their own bodies and are informed about the risks and benefits of those sorts of treatments.”
Joseph says surgery can be necessary if other treatments don’t fully manage the arthritis pain.
“My job is to find all the other avenues we can for patients before they go through something like that,” he says.
Keep a positive attitude
“It’s so easy to feel sorry for yourself — I don’t really ever feel sorry for myself,” Gardner says, joking that “maybe 10 minutes on Friday morning,” she gives herself some time for self-pity but follows that up by asking herself why she’d want to. She says keeping herself busy with things she enjoys gives her plenty of other things to think and talk about.
Gardner has been a longtime advocate for arthritis sufferers and would love to connect with others in the east Idaho community who could learn from her experience and offer mutual support. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.