In my first post on the reasons I garden, I mentioned that I started my allotment journey in an effort to aid my mental health. Not long after I took on that first plot, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). For those that don’t know, RA is an inflammatory autoimmune disease in which your immune system mistakingly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue, causing painful inflammation in the joints. Most commonly the fingers, wrists, ankles and feet. My own diagnosis came about following a period of severe pain and swelling in my wrists. Initially thought to be carpal tunnel – which, in my line of work, is fairly common. However, blood tests suggested RA and that was quickly confirmed by an MRI scan.
There is no ‘cure’ for Rheumatoid Arthritis. There are various drugs and treatments that can ease symptoms – but all such treatments have downsides that could potentially cause other issues.
My initial reaction on receiving the diagnosis was that my allotment journey was coming to an end before I’d barely started. However, RA can ‘come and go’. It’s not usually something people suffer from constantly. For some, it can ‘flare up’ every few days, for others, it can be weeks or months. In my particular case, the initial flare up (that led to diagnosis) lasted quite a while. Thereafter it would come and go every few weeks. With that in mind, on ‘good days’ I would still visit the allotment and carry on as normal.
In the time since my diagnosis, I’ve identified various ‘triggers’ to flare-ups. The most significant of them is stress, which has been well documented elsewhere. Time on the plot, for me, has been a great reliever of stress. The more often I’m there, the less often I have flare-ups.
Many people also incorrectly believe that RA means you have to reduce exercise. It was, for a long time, believed that intense exercise exacerbated symptoms. While it would be true to say that the damage caused by RA can limit certain activities due to the inevitable damage that occurs during a flare-up, not exercising at all is most definitely not a good idea. For me, the plot is where I exercise, aside from walking daily.
Another trigger is the lack of Vitamin D. Low levels increase the risk of flu, alongside joint and muscle pain. The more time you spend outdoors, the more Vitamin D your body soaks up.
Overall though, I’m personally convinced that stress is my main trigger. Working on the plot is the best way for me to deal with that. Whilst I still suffer occasional pain, the severity of it is far less significant if I’m able to keep my stress levels under control.
The damage already done by RA, along with the additional damage by occasional flare-ups, has however meant I do have some restrictions. I’m unable to lift heavy loads, and I’m not quite as ‘flexible’ as I once was. I’m also very much aware that Rheumatoid Arthritis is something I will have for life.
Planning for the Future
While I may consider it ‘under control’ for now, that may not be the case years down the line. With that in mind, I do try to take that into consideration when designing my plot layout. A path width of 50cm may work today, but in years to come when I can’t quite angle my body in the same way, I’m going to need wider paths. For the same reason, I also use raised beds. They not only raise the working level to something a little more comfortable, but they’re also far easier to keep on top of.
Today though, I know that just visiting the plot is enough to keep the flare-ups at bay.