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How tennis saved me – account of an RA sufferer

Last time I discussed the benefits of exercise for Rheumatoid Arthritis sufferers. This time I shall discuss my own experience and explain how tennis saved my life.

When I started playing, I was in my mid-thirties and should have been at the peak of my health, but I wasn’t. Despite being on medication, I still had hot swollen knees, sore fingers and toes, and rigid, immovable shoulders for most of the day. I could barely walk, and limped from the house to the car. That was the extent of my exercise.

Something had to change. I was deteriorating rapidly and my outlook was bleak. I was constantly out of breath and my resting pulse was 79. It wasn’t a good position for someone of my age to be in. So, I joined a tennis club and signed up for group lessons.

I distinctly remember the early days. The racket was huge in my hand, and extremely heavy, so much so I struggled to hold it upright. In addition, I found it hard to grip the racket. When I did manage to make contact with the ball, (hard when you’re a beginner) either the racket was knocked from my hand or I was pushed backwards. Believe me, the ball wasn’t moving at a great speed. I was just very weak.

I had other problems too. Firstly, I couldn’t move very well around the court since my knees were so frequently like balloons, and secondly, I struggled with the service action since I couldn’t raise my arm above my head. Everything was against me . . . except my desire.

My coach, bless him, told me he doubted my ability to ever play tennis. Thankfully, I wasn’t so easily put off!

So I persisted, despite the agony. After each session, not only was I exhausted and needed a sleep, but my body roared out its complaint. Every time I was in agonising pain, particularly in my shoulders and knees. If I had told my doctor what I was doing he would have probably been horrified, but I had a theory. I was going to be in pain anyway, so what did I have to lose? And I was right. Over time, the pain I inflicted upon myself disappeared, and not only that, my hot swollen and stiff joints were no more. In effect, I had put myself into remission.

One other personal benefit was for my right shoulder. At the time, I couldn’t lift my arm much at all, but to my delight, when I played tennis, I could lift it above my shoulder. The reason for this was because tennis involves a swinging action of the arm, something that doctors advice RA sufferers to do on a regular basis to aid movement. I was doing it for a couple of hours at a time. It had to help. At first, the free movement only remained with me for the duration I was playing tennis, and the instant I stopped, my shoulder seized.

However, over time, this changed, and after a few years, I gained permanent free-flowing movement. For me, this was an amazing achievement. I could finally reach into the top cupboards in kitchen! If you don’t have RA, you may not appreciate how good that feels. It was huge.

Tennis is my favourite sport, but that aside, I do believe it to be good for RA sufferers. The swinging action is beneficial, the amount of running you do whilst playing doubles is limited, and the social benefits are immense. It is perfect for anyone with limited movement, and if you are like me and play regularly, you will get fitter and fitter.

I personally believe, had I not taken up tennis I would be in a wheelchair by now. Also, my life expectancy would have been reduced and my susceptibility to other illnesses would have increased. In essence, tennis saved my life. No wonder I love it so much!

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The Benefits of Exercise for RA sufferers

Your joints are hot and swollen, and moving causes agonising pain. Exercising may even make you feel worse, and certainly will do if you over-extend those sore joints beyond a tolerable limit. Having said that, exercising IS ESSENTIAL to Rheumatoid Arthritis sufferers, and for me proved to be the turning point for achieving a healthy body. Basically, it saved my life. More on my own experiences in a subsequent blog.

Exercising is important for many reasons. First, from a physiological point of view, it helps rid the body of toxins. It is the function of the lymphatic system to rid the body of waste and maintain a healthy immune system. However, since there is no pump for lymph, as is the case of blood flow, it relies upon body movement. If there is none, it backs up like a clogged sewerage pipe. When this happens even the healthiest of us will feel lethargic. If you already have a pre-existing condition, you are likely to feel even worse.

So Exercise! It is a must!

Okay, so what are the other benefits? If we are bed-ridden due to some other illness, our muscles deteriorate. This happens surprisingly rapidly. Use it or lose it. It may be a cliché, but it is true, especially in the case of RA. If we don’t exercise, our muscles and ligaments waste and our bones thin. If a strong muscle can’t move a stiff knee, then how is a weak muscle expected to?

If you are worse in the morning, as are many RA sufferers, surely it makes sense to get those joints moving sooner. Get out of bed and move, move, move! It is worth the effort. Do you not feel so much better when everything has started working again? Of course you do, so make the effort!

Next time, I shall write about my own exercising experiences and how I progressed from being unable to walk more than ten metres without agonising pain, to running around a tennis court.

It did happen! It can for you too!