Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Kicking RA's Ass Part 2: Rheumatoid Arthritis - What it is, and why it it SUCKS

Today's post is part 2 of a 3 part series by guest poster Mike Mahaffey - about his journey as a BJJ competitor struggling with a chronic and sometimes debilitating disease, rheumatoid arthritis.

Part 1 can be read here.

Some weeks later, Teresa had taken a picture of my swollen knuckles with her iPhone, and showed this picture to a physician she worked with at the local hospital (where she is a social worker). This physician also happened to have Rheumatoid Arthritis.

She noticed the tell-tale redness and swelling in my hands, and after asking Teresa about some of my symptoms, suggested that maybe it was best that I see my own doctor for an examination.

Sure enough, after a consult with my primary care physician, followed by a referral to a rheumatologist, I was diagnosed with RA. I had all sorts of questions, and in turn realized that I didn’t know a thing about this disease.



This is “not your grandmother’s arthritis”, in the sense that it is not limited to the elderly and infirm. Being an autoimmune disease, anyone of any age, even very young children, can be diagnosed with it. Despite the word “arthritis” being in the name, joint pain and damage is only one symptom of this disease.

Fatigue, fevers, and other organ damage can, and frequently do, happen due to the inflammation that RA causes. There is increased chance of secondary infections due to the immunosuppressant effect of RA treatments, as well as an increased chance of mortality over time due to the disease and inflammation processes themselves.

Once I started to learn more about what my body was doing to itself, I became more and more anxious about my future, wondering if I could continue to train in the martial arts the way I wanted to train. Unfortunately, that anxiety was not completely unfounded. 

Over the next several years, I tried dozens of treatments under the supervision of my rheumatologist. None of them, to this day, have given me the level of pain relief and mobility that I have been seeking. I have taken methotrexate (a drug, in higher doses, used to treat cancer) pills, methotrexate injections, given myself biologic injections at home, and now am receiving chemotherapy infusions every six weeks in order to “calm down” my immune response and avoid further joint and organ damage.

I eliminated gluten from my diet once I discovered that gluten has been contributing to “flares”, or increases in pain and disease activity. I have tried hot compresses, cold compresses, over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, hot tubs, and foam rolling in an attempt to gain temporary pain relief.

I have had two knee surgeries due to cartilage damage, likely related to RA inflammation. I had a severe staph infection that needed surgical intervention, likely due to my suppressed immune system. I have glaucoma, a co-occurring condition caused by inflammation in the eye that can damage the optic nerve and cause blindness. I use a cane on many days, due to painful inflammation in my feet, knees and hips. I wear braces on my wrists at night, due to wrist pain that often wakes me up. And in mid-April, I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, which often co-occurs with RA.

Mike's new Shock-Tek gloves for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

I have been in a continual period of adjustment to what RA has thrown at me for almost the past five years. As a result, although I have continued to train BJJ (physical activity, when tolerable, is actually really good for people with RA – “move it or lose it” is very much the truth), I have had to modify, assess, and re-modify how I train. And, until the end of 2015, I didn’t feel that the risk of injuring already tender joints in a BJJ tournament was worth it.

On December 15, 2015, just weeks shy of nine years of continuous training, I was awarded my brown belt in BJJ. This was a huge accomplishment for me. Rank is notoriously hard to come by in BJJ, with the rank of black belt (the rank after brown) taking an average of 8-12 years to attain.

BJJ is an art that puts performance on a pedestal – high ranking practitioners do not have to be the “toughest people in the gym”, but those with high rank are expected to be able to demonstrate their skills in “rolling”, or free sparring on the mat.

I was excited, overwhelmed, and happy about this promotion. I also felt a great sense of responsibility – I was one of the highest ranking students at MAGIC BJJ (a close friend of mine was promoted with me to brown belt, but other than us there are only lower ranked students at our school), and I felt the need to lead by example.

Many students at MAGIC participate in BJJ competitions. In BJJ competing, although not necessary, is often seen as a good way to test the effectiveness of your Jiu-Jitsu. I had been thinking about competing again, and since I wasn’t getting any younger or healthier, I decided now was the time. I wanted to at least do one big tournament before I eventually (hopefully) earned my black belt. So I set my sights on the 2016 IBJJF Chicago Spring International Open.

Mike's training and results for the IBJJF Open in Part 3.


Mike Mahaffey is a 43 year old married father of two from Lansing, MI. He has been training martial arts since he was a teenager, and holds a first degree black belt in TaeKwonDo ChungDoKwan, a 6th degree black belt in Pukang Tang Soo Do, and a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He currently trains and teaches at Magic Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Martial Arts Center in East Lansing, MI.