Maybe you want to tell. Riding the emotional ups and downs of arthritis can be easier when you talk about it with family, friends, and even co-workers; some may be able to offer arthritis help and advice. Maybe you don’t want to tell. You may fear you’ll be treated differently once people know you have it, or you may simply dread the question, “What is arthritis?” 

Alex Shikhman, MD, a San Diego rheumatologist, says the majority of his patients opt to stay quiet about their arthritis in the workplace for fear of it adversely affecting their job status. “They worry that they will get discriminated against at work and that it will affect their health insurance premiums,” says Dr. Shikhman.

Several factors can influence people’s openness, including what type of arthritis they have, how severe it is, and what their social environments are like, says Mark Lumley, PhD, a Detroit psychologist whose research has explored disclosure of secrets and how this affects mental well-being. Working with arthritis patients, he found that those with a more common, more socially understood disorder – osteoarthritis, for example, as opposed to fibromyalgia  – tend to disclose more often.

To explore how this personal decision can play out in everyday life, Arthritis Today asked three people to share how they told others. Read their stories – and what psychologists have to say.

Sally

At age 25, Sally* is a successful public relations and marketing manager in Charlotte, North Carolina, who doesn’t let her rheumatoid arthritis (RA) stop her from running, biking and playing tennis. “I’m pretty athletic. I played three sports in high school and field hockey in college,” she says.

Diagnosed at age 20, Sally experienced periodic flares for a couple of years but is now enjoying a remission. “I have it in my small joints: fingers, wrists, toes, elbows. Every now and then I have a flare and my toes will be stiff, or one finger is really irritating,” she says.

Sally finds the arthritis help and support she needs from telling only family and close friends, including her boyfriend of five years. Beyond that, it’s just easier to keep mum about her condition when she’s around most other people. “It isn’t something I want to broadcast,” she says. “I just don’t want to be judged differently.”

Thankful that her arthritis is manageable at this point in her life, Sally feels all the more confident of her decision not to share her condition with her boss and co-workers.

“It’s not necessarily that I am hiding it from them. If it came up, I would be open and talk about it. But it’s not something I am going to go out of my way to tell them about,” she explains. “I don’t want a stigma attached to who I am in the workplace.”