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A Gymnast With RA: Caroline's Story
Her passion for competition keeps this young gymnast with rheumatoid arthritis on the mat.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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Caroline Scheuermann is an A student and a level 8 gymnast in Franklin, Tennessee. That's a lot for any 14-year-old girl, but there's more — she's also living with RA. Caroline has polyarticular juvenile arthritis, a childhood form of rheumatoid arthritis.
During competition season, it’s a full-time job for her to practice 26 hours a week, perform, and stay on top of her grades. Her mother, Lori, attributes Caroline’s success as a gymnast with rheumatoid arthritis to the effectiveness of biologic medications such as Enbrel (etanercept) and her daughter’s commitment to hard work.
“Right now, I am in competition season, so my challenge is to perfect my routines so that I can improve my scores and my team's score for state level competition, while still being focused on schoolwork and maintaining my A average,” Caroline says.
Maintaining tight control over RA is the key to success in gymnastics, says Mark Sleeper, PT, PhD, physical therapist and assistant professor in physical therapy and human movement sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “If the RA is well controlled and you can reduce activity during an exacerbation, you could continue with gymnastics,” he says.
Dr. Sleeper notes that staying competitive in gymnastics typically means no time off from practice and competition. For a gymnast with rheumatoid arthritis, it is imperative, however, to take breaks when needed and achieve the right balance between activity and rest.
Overcoming RA Challenges From Preschool On
Though still a young girl, Caroline’s RA journey has already been a long one. When she was diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile arthritis in kindergarten, it was after years of mysterious swollen joints. First it was a toe, then a swollen knee that wouldn’t get better. Her pediatrician, mystified, sent the family to a series of specialists in search of answers.
“By the time she was diagnosed, it was in every major joint in her body,” recalls her mother. “She could start the day, but couldn’t last through school. Her knee was painful, and she walked with a limp.”
There are few doctors who specialize in this childhood form of rheumatoid arthritis, her mother says. Plus, more conservative treatments such as steroids didn’t work. To get her child help, the family traveled to Cincinnati to see juvenile RA specialists. “In Cincinnati, they were very aggressive. She had joint injections and weekly methotrexate [Rheumatrex, Trexall].” Now Caroline gets a weekly injection of her biologic drug once a week.
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Caroline needed to take a hiatus between the time of her diagnosis and getting her polyarticular arthritis under control. By first grade though, she was back on the mat.
“Gymnastics is always challenging me physically and mentally,” she says. “It is never boring because you never know when you will nail a new skill you've been working hard to learn. I like knowing that my body is strong, even stronger than most boys my age.”
Tips for Gymnasts With RA
Along the way, Caroline said she has learned these strategies:
- Pace yourself.Rest when you become fatigued — resist the urge to power through.
- Understand your pain.“Sometimes it may hurt your joints when you first start an exercise, but your joints might feel better as time goes on. I have learned to recognize when it's my arthritis pain and when it's not,” says Caroline.
- Stay fit.The muscles that gymnastics develops can help boost mobility.
- Stay on your medications.If Caroline wasn’t consistent with her weekly injection, she says she wouldn’t be able to compete. Her mother admits that they did try to wean Caroline off medications, but a flare-up soon followed.
- Manage your time.Caroline has learned to maximize her schedule, using free time during competition season to knock off homework, for example.
Caroline is a role model for all athletes with RA. In December 2013, her local chapter of the Arthritis Foundation chose her as an honoree for the annual fundraiser Jingle Bell Run, building on her story to help raise donations to fight arthritis.
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