Rheumatoid Arthritis and Martial Arts
My first introduction to martial arts was 10 years ago when I went to Phuket with a girlfriend of mine. I am a regular visitor to Thailand. It was where I was born, I have family there and feel a real sense of connection to the country. Phuket has Muay Thai on overload. You’ll find nearly as many Muay Thai gyms and camps there as you would McDonalds in Australia. They are EVERYWHERE. Just to remind you that they are everywhere, as you walk through the streets of Phuket, you will both see and hear about Muay Thai. It’s inescapable. In this article I want to share with you my experience with rheumatoid arthritis and martial arts.
What exactly is martial arts?
I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know anything about Muay Thai until I was metaphorically hit in the face with it on this Phuket trip. I was instantly intrigued. It brought back memories of watching Jean Claude Van Damme back in the 80s and 90s kicking ass in movies like Bloodsport. He was to me back then what Jason Mamoa is to me now. Yes, I went from the muscles from Brussels to the Hunk from Hawaii.
Now, I know that Bloodsport was not Muay Thai but it goes to show how little I knew about martial arts in general at the time. In my eyes, there were two types of martial arts and two masters. There was the Bloodsport kind and the Karate Kid kind and there was Jean Claude and Mr. Miyagi. There was also Mike Tyson but is boxing a martial art? At the time, I didn’t think so and UFC? What is that?
Anyhow! My girlfriend and I signed up for some training sessions at one of the thousands of Muay Thai gyms on Phuket island and BAM! I was hooked! Luckily for me, I discovered upon returning home that a friend of mine had opened up an MMA gym. What is this MMA you speak of? Again, I had no idea. I know, I must get out more but before you know it, I’m doing MMA training 3 – 4 nights a week and would continue to do so on and off for the next 10 years.
Sparring? No thanks!
Being in my 30s, I had no aspirations of being a fighter. As a busy mother of 3, I had accepted that that ship had sailed. I just loved the feeling of hitting pads and getting fit and strong. I had tried sparring once in class and it was enough to make me decide never to do it again. Getting hit is no fun. What kind health benefits could you possibly get from that form of exercise? Curse those professionals who make it look so easy! It’s a bit of a conundrum really. On the one hand, you’d really like to be tough enough to spar. On the other hand, you don’t want to be that person that voluntarily puts themselves in a position to be hit…. repeatedly. So with that in mind, I’ll stick to hitting pads.
My rheumatoid arthritis and martial arts
I didn’t really take martial arts seriously until I discovered Brazilian Jiu Jitsu 3 years ago. Until my first session, I had never even heard of it. I know, I know, I really need to get out more! BJJ is an incredibly addictive sport and what I loved about it was that it was for anybody (ok, maybe not eevverybody but just about). Honestly though, it really is for anybody unless you have a severe case of the 1 out of 100 forms of arthritis (Yes, there are over 100 types of arthritis). You can be any age, size and fitness level to start BJJ and still progress to black belt… that is, if you have at least 10 years to commit to the journey.
A few months into my BJJ journey, I competed in a BJJ competition. Up until then, I had never competed in anything. Not unless I can count my historic 400 meter winning sprint in Grade 5. Or maybe it was Year 8? Meh, the memory is not so good going that far back. Anyways, I didn’t think it was possible to start competing at my age but given the opportunity, I took it. At the time, I was at the peak of my fitness, my confidence was high and I really had nothing to lose. I trained and trained and ultimately came 2nd. It was an unbelievable feeling. At the age of 37, I kicked ass at my 1st comp. Go me!
I totally immersed myself in BJJ after that but unfortunately, it was short lived. Within 6 months, I’d be bed ridden and unable to walk because of an awful disease called rheumatoid arthritis. You can read more about rheumatoid arthritis here.
When my RA was at it’s absolute worst, I couldn’t move my body at all. Every inch that I moved caused me an incredible amount of pain. My own kids had to help me to sit, stand, eat, walk, shower, dress. It was like I had become a 90yr old overnight. This entire period was absolutely soul crushing, humiliating and just made me want to end my life. The effects of chronic pain on mental health is very understated and I write about it in this article.
After being bed ridden, it took weeks before I could confidently walk around the house and months before I could walk for more than 15 minutes at a time. Eventually, my rheumatologist found the right cocktail of drugs to get me functionally somewhat normally. Thanks to the 16 pills a day he prescribed me, I could finally return to work. It would take me over 12 months to return back to training.
When I was finally able to return to training, it was a very slow process. I was blessed with an amazing family at the fight gym where I trained and they were more than willing to modify sessions for me. Some nights I could only do 10 minutes worth of training and some weeks, I could only manage 1 night of training. The fatigue you experience when your body is fighting with your immune system is insurmountable. To couple that with physical activity is really hard but I was determined to return.
Is rheumatoid arthritis and martial arts arts possible?
Training at the time consisted of just lightly hitting pads. I couldn’t do pushups (I still can’t because RA has permanent damaged my wrists), squats (oh gosh, my knees!) or any form of jogging (ankles). Getting down on or anywhere near the floor was out of the question (it would be like climbing Mount Everest to get back up) so BJJ was a big no no.
Kickboxing was the only thing I could do where I could be control of the movement, the intensity and the pace. It would take another 12 months before I finally accepted that I will never be able to return to BJJ. My gi still hangs in my wardrobe but I don’t get sad about it anymore. It actually reminds me to take advantage of every opportunity I can get. I definitely would’ve regretted not competing now knowing that I wouldn’t be able to do it ever again.
I was inspired to write this article today about martial arts because a couple of months ago, I had a my first sparring match! Remember when I said I’d never do that again? Well, that was before rheumatoid arthritis. As much as I hate living with rheumatoid arthritis, it has given me real perspective and put me on a trajectory to opportunities I would not have otherwise had.
The journey back
My return to martial arts has not been a smooth and easy road. There have been setbacks, injuries, flare ups and of course, the chronic fatigue that comes with having rheumatoid arthritis. My return, has taken YEARS. I took very small frustrating steps. I still get frustrated now! It’s annoying that I get tired so quickly. I’m annoyed that I’ll never be able to do a proper pushup or squat again (yes, I find that annoying). Most of all, I’m shit frightened of ever being taken down. Only those who live with debilitating arthritis understand what that entails.
It’s only human to refer back to the past and reminisce on what was and be bitter at what could’ve been. My steps have been small but to see where I am now, the sweat, struggle and tears have all been worth it. The fact that I have been able to return is not based solely on my efforts and my determination. It’s also because I’m one of the lucky ones who, along with my rheumatologist, found a mix of medications and treatments that worked. I acknowledge that not everyone is so lucky.
Does it hurt?
A common question I get asked is if martial arts hurts my joints. As I wrote in a previous article about diet and exercise, any exercise is good exercise. Simply put, motion is lotion. How you choose to be in motion is of course, up to you. As the saying goes, listen to your body.
Specifically with muay thai, strapping up my hands allows me to keep my wrist joints stable. When I learn new techniques, I do it softly and slowly. As my technique improves, I can pick up the pace and intensity. Warming up is also important to give your joints plenty of time to get use to movement. Some nights, if I’m lucky and have warmed up my legs and hips enough, I even manage some head kicks! Head kicks is something I couldn’t even achieve pre-RA so it’s pretty exciting. The important thing to keep in mind is if it hurts you, don’t do it. There are plenty of things I still can’t do but I modify the movement slowly so overtime, hopefully, I can.
Finding new homes
6 months ago, I had to buy a new house in order for my parents to move in with me to help me during my RA flares up. RA is a very volatile disease and you just never know when you’re going to have a bad RA day/month/year. Rheumatoid disease does not care that I am a full time working single mother of 3!
So moving meant that I had to leave my gym and find a new one.I was reluctant because I had only just gotten to the point where I could physically participate in a full hour class with minimal joint pain. The thought of having to explain my medical history and condition was just an added task I didn’t want to have to do. Having to explain your condition to a new coach is like listening to THAT friend tell the waiter that they’re gluten/dairy/nut intolerant/human food intolerant. Uurrgghh! I’d rather not.
Eventually, I found a new gym and as luck would have it, it’s a Muay Thai gym! I have come full circle! It’s been 4 months and I just love it. I’m learning new things, perfecting old things and just enjoying being back. It’s a great gym where I am now and I’m so grateful for the community spirit that exists there. The owners, coaches and members know your name, they talk to you, support you, encourage you and just treat you like an equal. There are no egos, just friendly people who want to get better and understand that part of them getting better is helping you get better.
Sparring? Yes please!
The best thing (maybe not the BEST thing) about WFC, is that sparring is part of the experience. The sparring is taught step by step and at your own pace and level. So basically, the newer you are, the softer you get hit and so on… With that, I am no longer in a conundrum. I am one of those people that is tough enough to take on the challenge of sparring and ok with voluntarily putting myself in a position to get hit… repeatedly. As anyone at WFC will tell you, I’m pretty good at it: the getting hit part that is, not the sparring part. So why do it you ask? Because I know that if I keep trying, I will get better. That’s what’s gotten me back to this point. The willingness and determination to keep trying.
Entering the ring
2 months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in an intra-club sparring day. I had no intention of jumping in the ring so early on but the opportunity had presented itself and I couldn’t say no. I reminded myself that it wasn’t so long ago that I spent every morning crying because I couldn’t move. Remembering the bitterness I felt in those early days coming back to training when I had to stop after 10 minutes because my body couldn’t give anymore. I also remembered the gi I had in my wardrobe reminding me to take opportunities when they come.
That sparring experience was one of the best things I have ever done. No, I did not win. Yes, I got hit repeatedly (my specialty it seems). At one point, I didn’t think I’d be able to make it the full 3 rounds. In fact, I pretty much had my ass handed to me but you wouldn’t think it because I walked away with the biggest smile on my face. Even though it wasn’t a win in the ring, it was a personal victory. In my humble opinion: You never lose. Either you win or you learn.
I was so super proud of myself for doing something I didn’t think I had the heart or courage to do. The best thing about it is knowing that it was only a starting point. Will I ever be the greatest of all time? Of course not. The point is, every time I step off the mats after class, I walk away feeling like I can conquer the world. For those living with rheumatoid arthritis, that feeling is priceless.
Rheumatoid arthritis and martial arts for you
This article is not about me selling martial arts to all the RA warriors out there. Certainly give it a go if you want to. It’s about determination and hope. You just have to keep trying. Do what you love even if you can only do it in small bits. Do what you can, even it’s just taking tiny steps but celebrate each step because it’s one step in the right direction. Don’t look down and don’t look back. Look forward with faith. In the words of the great Martin Luther King:
If you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.Martin Luther King
I have loved martial arts since it was introduced to me 10 years ago. I actually enjoy it more now because it means so much more now. It’s a great reminder to myself that despite being 40 years old and living with rheumatoid arthritis, I’m not out for the count just yet.
I still got plenty of fight left.
Update July 2021
Do you have any questions about rheumatoid arthritis and martial arts? You will get plenty of answers in the private Facebook support group and follow The Rheuma Mill on your socials.