Symptoms and Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder that affects the joints. It causes a variety of symptoms including persistent inflammation, pain, and swelling. RA often affects a variety of areas in the body including the arms, hands, legs, and feet.
It affects approximately one percent of Americans. Unlike other types of arthritis, RA occurs on both sides of the body and is not caused by wear-and-tear on the joints over time. Instead, it affects the lining of the joints and results in redness, swelling, and pain symmetrically in the body. Over time, it may erode the bones and cause joint deformity.
Autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis occur when your immune system attacks its own tissues, mistakenly identifying them as threats. As a result, RA can affect areas of the body other than the joints, including organs such as the skin, heart, lungs, and eyes, among others. Most often, it strikes during middle age, although it can also affect children and seniors. Women are two to three times more likely to suffer from RA than men.
Some common symptoms of RA include:
- Tenderness, warmth, or swelling in the joints
- Morning stiffness that lasts well into the day
- Fatigue, weight loss, and fever
In the early stages, RA tends to affect smaller joints of the body—for instance, the knuckles of the hands and feet. As time passes, swelling and pain may appear in larger joints, such as the shoulders, wrists, elbows, hips, knees, and ankles.
The progression of the disease and the severity of symptoms vary from person to person. Flare ups are periods of increased disease activity or progress, while during remission, symptoms lessen or disappear altogether. In some individuals, symptoms come on suddenly and progress quickly, while in others they appear slowly over a period of years. In rare cases, RA goes into remission and never reappears.
You should contact your doctor if you experience persistent aching or swelling in the joints.
How Does RA Affect The Body?
Immune system cells move from the blood into the synovium, a special type of tissue that lines the joints. Once there, they trigger inflammation which causes the synovium to thicken and erode the cartilage, which is normally responsible for providing cushioning between your bones at the joints. As the cartilage wears away, the space between your bones narrows. Bones may even rub against each other, causing the joint to become warm to the touch, irritated, and swollen. Over time, the connective tissues between your bones stretch out and the joints may shift out of place.
The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown. While genes are not responsible for causing the disease, doctors believe that RA has a genetic component which makes some people more vulnerable to environmental factors such as infection or cigarette smoking. These factors then trigger the immune system to attack the joints and in some cases, the organs.
Doctors have identified three factors that increase your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis:
- Sex. Women are at least twice as likely to develop RA than men.
- Age. If you’re between the ages of 40 and 60, you have a higher likelihood of contracting the disease.
- Family history. Having a relative who has RA may also increase your risk of developing the disease.
There is no single diagnostic test for rheumatoid arthritis. In order to get a diagnosis, you will have to describe your symptoms to your doctor, undergo a physical exam, and possibly get an X-ray scan or a blood test.
Several important factors are considered in a RA diagnosis. These may include:
- Location of pain, especially in the joints of the hands. Symmetry is also important in ruling out other forms of arthritis.
- Stiffness in the joints in the morning.
- Hard bumps under the skin of the arms, also known as rheumatoid nodules.
- X-ray and blood test results.
In the majority of cases, blood tests identify the presence of rheumatoid-factor (RF) in the blood. However, RF may also be found in individuals who do not have rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors must therefore consider a variety of factors and test results in making their diagnosis.
People with rheumatoid arthritis tend to have a higher erythrocyte sedmentation rate (ESR), which signals inflammatory processes underway in the body. Another newly-developed test identifies the presence of anti-cyclic citrullinate d peptide (anti-CCP), which can indicate a more aggressive form of the disease.
X-rays offer a visual of the bones and joints. They can be used to track the progression of the disease over time.
Rheumatoid arthritis has no known cure, but medication, physical therapy, and in severe cases, surgery may help to manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
A variety of drugs may be prescribed, though doctors often begin with those with less severe side effects.
Occupational and physical therapists are often called upon to offer treatment to patients living with rheumatoid arthritis. They may outline a set of daily exercises to keep your joints flexible and help you to identify new ways of doing tasks. Assistive devices, such as buttonhooks, can also help to improve quality of life for those living with rheumatoid arthritis.
When medication and therapy fail to lessen the day-to-day impact of rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor may suggest surgery. Some options include total joint replacement, joint fusion, and tendon repair. These surgeries can help to reduce pain, correct joint deformities, and restore your ability to use your joint.
No information on this website should be used to start the use of dietary supplements and vitamins, natural and herbal products, homeopathic medicine and other mentioned products prior to a consultation with a physician or certified healthcare provider.