If you have ever watched those commercials on television for arthritis medicine and remarked how inaccurate they are, then this week's column is for you. If you cringe every time you see someone playing sports in an advertisement for a Rheumatoid Arthritis treatment, don't worry you're not alone. Dan takes a look at how television is playing a part in perpetuating the myths and stereotypes that haunt those of us who suffer from RA and similar diseases.
Rheumatoid Arthritis today is not the same as it was 25 years ago. Now, the population at large has at least a vague idea of what Rheumatoid Arthritis is. Of course, the misconceptions and stereotypes still run rampant, but at least people have heard of the disease. Back when I was diagnosed with JRA, the term had barely been coined. When anyone heard me say those three letters they usually asked “what’s that?”Today things are a bit different. In fact, they are so different, that we’ve completely passed the happy medium, and continued right on to the opposite extreme. Now, you can see commercials on television that advertise RA medicines almost every day. Unfortunately, the ads that play most at prime times are the ones for NSAIDs, and they are usually for osteoarthritis. NSAIDs, for those who missed the memo, are popular over-the-counter and prescription drugs such as aspirin, naproxen, ibuprophen and acetaminophen. The main problem is that these commercials further the spread of misinformation about arthritis. I like to refer to the whole shebang as the “NSAID Farce.”Now, anything or anyone that raises awareness about RA is aces in my book – that is, unless it spreads misinformation. In that case, it’s doing more harm than good. For example, let me set the scene:There is a woman in her late forties who is just getting ready to join her friend in a game of tennis. She is about to grab her racquet and head out to the court, but then she stops. “Owww,” she says, and her friend looks to her with a sympathetic face and says “Arthritis?” “Yes,” the woman says, “I took medicine earlier but it just isn’t working.” “Here,” her friend says, “try this.” The woman looks at her friend with a confused look and says “I thought that medicine was just for fevers and headaches.” “Not anymore!” Her friend says. I could go on with my little teleplay, but you get the idea. We’ve all seen the commercials, and they all pretty much play out like the one above. Those who know me can attest to the fact that I keep a fairly level head, even when upset. Despite that fact, every time one of these ads flashes onto my TV screen, I feel my anger starting to build. There are so many facets of these type of commercials that I take issue with, I hardly know where to begin! The biggest problem with these TV spots is that they perpetuate the stereotype of the “elderly arthritic.” I have been afflicted with this disease since the tender age of nine, so I have a particular interest in dispelling the notion that Rheumatoid Arthritis is a disease for 80-year-olds and retired baseball pitchers. I have heard the phrase “but you’re so young…” so many times that I made it the title of my autobiography. So, I do my best to educate anyone who will listen. Unfortunately, no matter how many friends and acquaintances that I enlighten, an NSAID commercial for arthritis ends up misinforming more individuals with one showing than could ever be re-educated by yours truly. It is very hard to change a person’s opinion about a long-held stereotype, especially when being assaulted five and six times a night while watching television. Now you understand why advertisers pay big money for their commercial time – it works. In fact, some people have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that even though they know me and know my history, they still believe that Rheumatoid Arthritis mostly affects older people. Hopefully, I will be able to open many more eyes when I publish my life story. Even if that never happens, though, I will continue to do what I can to educate everyone I meet.While the continuation of the “elderly arthritis patient” myth is certainly a major issue, by no means is it the only problem. These TV commercials always seem to portray people who suffer from Rheumatoid Arthritis as active, mostly healthy, sport-loving, individuals who have a problem with one or two of their joints from time-to-time. Sure, there are some who suffer from R.A. mildly, but for most of us, arthritis is an all-consuming, life-altering, ailment. We don’t take a run on the beach and then grab a tennis ball to have a catch with Fido. We don’t play six innings of softball and then hang-out until after midnight with the guys. And, we certainly don’t participate in a triathlon and then head home and cook dinner for the family. People who suffer from RA do have normal days, but we don’t spend those days tempting fate by pushing our bodies to the limit. At least, we don’t after learning our lesson once or twice. Also, most have a general malaise that goes along with the illness, which usually manifests in the form of an overwhelming feeling of fatigue. Sometimes just getting through the day like any other individual can be exhausting. To see some drug companies whose job it is to know about the diseases they are producing medicine for misrepresent the severity of Rheumatoid Arthritis on purpose is something that can be infuriating.One other thing that I noticed about these advertisements is that the commercials make it seem as if one swallow of their wonder-drug will make everything a-ok. While I have nothing personal against the makers of NSAIDs, I can’t remember a time when popping a few over-the-counter pills made everything all-better. Unfortunately, this is yet another myth that has made its way into the common social thread. Fifteen years ago when I was in high school, I used to work on the lighting sets for the school plays. The lighting teacher used to tell me to “take my Naprosyn and shut up.” It has only gotten worse in the almost two decades since then. All forms of arthritis are seen as a “walk-it-off,” “grin-and-bear-it,” type of sickness. No one would ever suspect that it is the number one cause of disability in the entire United States, and even when told, people don’t believe it.Of course, I am not saying that there is no one out there at all suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis who is able to get relief from taking an NSAID. My point is that these seemingly innocuous television commercials and magazine ads that depict exactly what most people think of when RA comes to mind are doing anyone who suffers from Rheumatoid Arthritis a great disservice. I’m not so naïve to think that an e-mail writing campaign or similar effort would change the way big pharmaceutical companies advertise. The fact of the matter is that we probably won’t ever change the commercials. What we can do, though, is make sure that we educate people about arthritis every time the opportunity presents itself. If you see a commercial for an RA medication and someone is watching with you, let him or her know that what you’ve just seen is exactly like every other reality show on television – nothing like reality.