Living with a chronic disease is remarkably common, particularly as the American population ages. Unfortunately, many of the most deeply affected folks aren't getting the support they need, in part because their diseases are largely unrecognized.
"About 160 million people in the United States have a chronic health condition and half of those 160 million have more than one chronic condition," says Amita Bishnoi-Singh, M.D., a rheumatologist at Henry Ford Health.
Living With Chronic Disease
Living with a chronic condition can be taxing. What's worse, people with ailments that are invisible — things like chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple sclerosis — may suffer in silence for years before they get a diagnosis.
"A lot of times symptoms are nonspecific. People might feel tired, or nauseous, or they might have trouble sleeping," Dr. Bishnoi says. "They might even downplay their symptoms when they talk with their doctors, and especially with their employers."
The reason: Fear. Many people are concerned that their health problem will define them both at home and at work. They don't want to be the weak link in the chain or request the accommodations they need to be successful. And they definitely don't want to lose their health insurance.
Unfortunately, when you're feeling crummy, motivating yourself to do what you need to do to feel better can be challenging. If you're tired, you may not want to exercise, eat well or visit your healthcare provider. There's a sense that you've lost control — that your body has betrayed you.
But there are several things you can do to regain control.
- Ask for help. In a perfect world, when you're diagnosed with a disease, you'd have a physician, therapist and physical trainer rallying around you. "Unfortunately, all of these things take time, money and insurance," Dr. Bishnoi says. That's why it's important to have a supportive network of friends and family members who can help on bad days and pitch in with grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning.
- Exercise. Exercise is powerful medicine for almost any condition. Getting regular physical activity helps strengthen muscles and build endurance. It also releases feel-good hormones that can lift mood and boost energy levels. A bonus: Exercise can help keep health issues like diabetes, obesity and heart disease at bay.
- Relax. Life during a pandemic is overwhelming for everyone. Add a chronic condition to the mix, and it can be really difficult to relax and de-stress. To make matters more complicated, stress can exacerbate chronic conditions. Whether you meditate, take deep breaths or soak in a warm tub, find the activities that help you relax and indulge in them.
- Sleep. Our cells rejuvenate while we're sleeping. If you're not getting sufficient shut-eye, you may struggle to function. "First, try to figure out why you're not sleeping well," Dr. Bishnoi says. "Are you getting up several times at night to go to the bathroom? Are you feeling stiffness or inflammation in your joints? Are you having bad dreams?" Once you know the “why” behind your unproductive sleep habits, you'll be better equipped to address them. Still struggling? Talk to your healthcare provider. A professional can help you figure out why you're not sleeping well.
You know your body better than anyone else. If something feels off, get it checked out — even if a healthcare professional has already investigated the issue and given you the all-clear.
"If you're not getting better, it's important to ask for help," Dr. Bishnoi says. "In the early stages of chronic disease, symptoms are often nonspecific, which can make diagnosing a chronic condition more difficult."
Our bodies try to heal themselves. When they can't, more obvious symptoms arise. Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't seek treatment early. "It just means you may have to keep going back," Dr. Bishnoi says. The idea is to create a support network around you and continue asking for help so all of your needs are met.
Dr. Amita Bishnoi-Singh is a rheumatologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers - Lakeside in Sterling Heights and New Center One in Detroit.