'Survivor' Outwits Rheumatoid Arthritis

Outback winner leads campaign to boost awareness about this disease

SATURDAY, Nov. 3, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- She was the only contestant to "outwit and outplay and outlast" all the others on television's "Survivor II" challenge in Australia's Outback. But Tina Wesson says she's just one of millions of women who face the daily challenge of outwitting rheumatoid arthritis.

The chronic and potentially debilitating disease of the joints strikes an estimated 2.1 million people nationwide, and women three times more often than men.

To help raise national awareness of the condition and teach how patients can live with the condition, Wesson is spearheading a new nationwide campaign, "Survive & Succeed," along with the Arthritis Foundation and the drugmaker Centacor Inc.

"Some people are affected by this to the point where they can't even do basic things like hold a hairbrush," Wesson says. "So we're out here wanting to bring awareness, raise funds and do whatever it takes to fight this disease."

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is characterized by joint inflammation, usually beginning in the hands, wrists, knees and elbows. The initial pain and fatigue gradually worsen as joints become more swollen, inflamed and stiff.

When inflammation persists or does not respond to treatment, it can destroy nearby cartilage, bone, tendons and ligaments, leading to permanent disability.

Wesson says she discovered she had RA seven years ago, when she suddenly started feeling unusually sore after playing her regular tennis games.

Within days, the soreness became serious. "I couldn't sleep laying down, I couldn't get out of the bathtub myself, and I knew something was seriously wrong," she says.

Once diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, Wesson, like many others with the disease, found she was quickly able to bounce back with the help of medication and lifestyle changes, which included modifying her rigorous exercise habits.

"I had to give up tennis, but now, instead, I play racquetball. I had to cut back on the amount of running I was doing. And I had to learn how to rest and to not always be burning the candle at both ends. But now, I'm able to lead a very active and fulfilling life," she says.

And that has included winning the $1 million Survivor II challenge.

Wesson says that because she was allowed to bring her RA medicine, methotrexate, along on the Outback challenge, her illness did not pose a problem.

"Actually, my RA even got a little better out there," she notes. "The heat was about 120 degrees, so I was just a big land lizard and we had a lot of down time, hours and hours of boredom. And I was, of course, on the 'rice diet,' so I didn't have a lot of the food additives that I normally have in my system. And I think those factors really played a part in my feeling as well as I did in the Outback."

According to Dr. William Robb, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Northwestern University, the pain of rheumatoid arthritis is caused by the inflammation of tissue around the joints, especially areas like the hips and knees.

"Basically it's a disease that causes a reactive change in the soft tissue linings of joints, and it's the chronic or acute inflammation of that lining that creates potential damage to the cartilage surfaces of those joints," Robb says.

Early detection and treatment can make all the difference in preventing the disease's progression, he adds. "If the cycle of inflammation can be interrupted early enough, then the cartilage damage is prevented."

In advanced cases that don't respond to medications and lifestyle changes, patients can usually be treated successfully with surgery to reconstruct areas damaged by the disease, Robb says.

The American College of Rheumatology says that RA results in more than 9 million physician visits and more than 250,000 hospitalizations each year.

Because the disease frequently strikes patients during their most productive years, disability can have a major financial impact. It has been estimated that U.S. workers with arthritis have a combined yearly earnings deficit of $17.6 billion, compared to those without arthritis. And $6.5 billion of that deficit is attributable to rheumatoid arthritis.

What to Do: You can learn much more about Wesson's campaign at the Survive and Succeed Web site. And visit the Arthritis Foundation for extensive information on rheumatoid arthritis.

SOURCES: Interviews with Tina Wesson, "Survive and Succeed" spokeswoman; William Robb, M.D., senior attending at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare, and assistant professor of orthopedic surgery, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.
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