The Basics of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common type of autoimmune arthritis that causes painful swelling in the joints resulting in painful and debilitating symptoms throughout the body. Although there is not currently a cure for RA, there are medications and treatments available for patients to help them mitigate symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the body’s immune system begins attacking healthy cells in your body, causing painful inflammation and stiffness. Typically, this attack begins in the synovium– the lining of the membranes that insulate our joints. The inflammation, if left unchecked, can cause damage to the tendons and ligaments surrounding the affected joints.
The likelihood of developing rheumatoid arthritis can increase with age, with most adults receiving their diagnosis between the ages of 30-50 although RA can affect even children. According to the American College of Rheumatology, more than 1.3 million Americans are affected by RA.
Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms can increase and decrease in severity, in periods known as ‘flares’ and ‘remissions’. It tends to manifest in the smallest joints of the hands and feet first, before spreading to other joints in the wrists, ankles, shoulders, and hips. The stiffness in joints can be particularly painful in the morning from the lack of movement during sleep, which is a common indication for RA as most other forms of arthritis do not experience a similar stiffness sensation early in the day.
Rheumatologists advise that you come in for an assessment if you’ve noticed any pain, discomfort, or swelling in your joints. To give you an accurate diagnosis, doctors will examine your joints, and take note of your symptoms. If they notice anything concerning, they will order a blood test, as well as an x-ray or MRI to assess how far the disease has potentially spread throughout the body. Other related symptoms can also include weight loss, fever, muscle weakness, or fatigue.
Risk Factors for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Doctors are still searching for the answer as to what causes rheumatoid arthritis. Research suggests that a genetic component plays a role, but there are additionally some risk factors that may trigger the onset of the disease. These risk factors range from smoking to obesity, as well as early exposure to secondhand smoke. Women are 2-3 times more likely than men to be diagnosed with RA, with females making up about 75% of the rheumatoid arthritis population.
Possible Complications for Rheumatoid Arthritis
A diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis comes with many painful symptoms, but it can also put a person at risk for complications and other comorbid conditions. These may include:
- Heart disease and Diabetes
- Sjogren’s syndrome (affects the moisture present in the eyes and mouth)
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
Treatment Options for Rheumatoid Arthritis
While rheumatoid arthritis cannot be cured, doctors can prescribe medicine and therapies that can slow the progress of the disease and mitigate painful, debilitating symptoms. Infusion and injection therapies such as Actemra, Cimzia, Inflectra, Orencia, Remicade, Renflexis, and Simponi Aria are the most commonly prescribed biologics for RA. The most important aspect of the rheumatoid arthritis treatment plan is developing healthy habits that keep you active and mobile as much as possible.
Other treatments for rheumatoid arthritis include drugs given through injection and infusion therapy, which are designed to slow the progress of joint damage and limit swelling. These are known as DMARDs (disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs). Your doctor may also prescribe a certain type of DMARD called biologic agents, which are designed to target the immune system itself.
How to Live Best With Rheumatoid Arthritis
A diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis is serious, but manageable. Taking certain steps to improve your symptoms and ensure your health long-term is extremely important for RA well living.
- Look into assistive devices that will help keep you active and enjoying your hobbies long-term (specialized knives for kitchen work, wrist and ankle braces to support joints during physical activity, or long rod reachers to help pick up small objects)
- Join a self-management education class for patients with RA where you’ll learn useful tips from experts and find support from others living with RA
- Stay as active as your symptoms allow and maintain healthy eating habits