Rheumatoid Arthritis

What is rheumatoid arthritis? 

Rheumatoid arthritis is a painful inflammatory autoimmune disease that impacts the joints on both sides of your body as well as the surrounding tissue and organs. Inflammation results when a person’s immune system triggers an attack on the body’s healthy cells, resulting in painful swelling in the impacted areas. Over time, inflammation can damage the tissue, erode the bone, and deform the joints. 

Rheumatoid arthritis can affect many joints at a time and most commonly manifests in the hands, wrists, and knees. While some people experience more localized symptoms, some people with rheumatoid arthritis may experience more widespread damage to other systems of the body, like your eyes, skin, heart, or lungs. As symptoms worsen, a person can become disabled because of mobility and impairments from the joint deformities.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

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The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown. However, the physical symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are caused by the body’s immune response to a perceived threat to the body. This attack on healthy cells results in the inflammation and joint pain characteristic of the condition. While doctors have yet to identify the specific cause of rheumatoid arthritis, they have linked the disorder to genetic and environmental factors. During an immune response brought on by rheumatoid arthritis, the body releases chemicals that attack the healthy cells in the cushioning joint tissue. 

When the tissue lining the joints becomes inflamed, a person begins to experience trouble walking and moving their joints properly. The underlying cause of all the limitations that result from rheumatoid arthritis is the internal immune response that mistakenly damages healthy cells.

What are symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

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A person’s individual symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis will vary depending on the person and the severity of the condition. Symptoms may start out more manageable but may worsen over time as the condition progresses. 

The most common signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include the following: 

  • Fever
  • General feeling of weakness
  • Stiffness in multiple joints that is worse in the moringa or after inactivity 
  • Tiredness or fatigue 
  • Tenderness and swelling in multiple joints 
  • Aches and pain in joints on both sides of the body 
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss 

Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can occur and worsen during flare ups and can improve over time during periods of symptom remission. Rheumatoid arthritis tends to start in smaller joints and then begin to impact the larger joints. You may notice that symptoms start in the fingers or toes and work their way to the wrists, ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders. However, symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are not limited to joints and can impact other parts of the body. 

The most common areas rheumatoid arthritis impacts include:

  • Eyes
  • Lungs
  • Skin 
  • Heart 
  • Bones marrow
  • Blood vessels
  • Kidneys

Are there any risk factors or groups for rheumatoid arthritis?

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Even though doctors are still trying to determine the exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis, they have identified key risk factors that make a person more likely to develop the condition. These risk factors do not guarantee that a person with these characteristics will have rheumatoid arthritis. Instead, these groups have a predisposition to the disorder. 

The following characteristics could increase a person’s risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. 

Sex: Women have a higher likelihood of developing rheumatoid arthritis than men by roughly two or three times. 

Age: Rheumatoid arthritis typically develops as you age and becomes more common as you enter middle age. The condition can begin at any age, though. Most cases of the disorder manifest when a person is in their sixties. 

Family history: Having a family history of the condition makes a person more likely to have the condition in their life. A specific genetic makeup can contribute to the autoimmune disorder and can worsen the severity of the symptoms. 

Environmental factors: Exposure to smoking from a young age can increase your chances of developing the disorder in adulthood even if you do not smoke. 

Lifestyle: Smoking cigarettes increases your chances of rheumatoid arthritis and can lead to worsened symptoms. 

Medical history: People who are obese have a higher risk of rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, women who have not given birth may have a higher likelihood of the condition. 

There is at least one factor that can decrease some people’s chances of rheumatoid arthritis. Women who breastfeed may have a lessened risk of the condition.

How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?

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Your doctor will be able to confirm a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis by using a combination of tests and examinations. An early diagnosis is key to an effective treatment plan that can slow or stop the condition from getting worse. You should see a doctor or a specialist like a rheumatologist as soon as you notice new symptoms develop. 

During an appointment, your doctor will likely start by asking about your symptoms, including how much pain you are experiencing and where the symptoms are occurring. In addition, your doctor will review your personal and family medical history to understand your risk factors. A physical examination consists of your doctor looking for joint tenderness or signs of inflammation. 

To diagnose rheumatoid arthritis more accurately, your doctor may order blood tests that look for present or absent antibodies that indicate the presence of rheumatoid arthritis. More specifically, a rheumatoid arthritis blood test tries to detect inflammation through erythrocyte sedimentation rates and C-reactive protein levels. Also, tests will be able to show if rheumatoid factor (RF) is present, which is present for roughly 80% of people with the condition. 

Finally, imaging tests like x-rays, MRIs, or ultrasounds can help your doctor assess joint health or erosion.

How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?

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There are effective treatments and symptoms management techniques to help keep slow the progression of the condition. The goal of treatment is to address the bothersome symptoms of the condition to improve joint junction and reduce pain. Treatment can also help slow the progression of the disorder to reduce the long-term impact of the joint damage and reduce the chance of other health complications. 

The most effective treatments are those that start early and aggressively to attempt to put the disease in remission as soon as possible. Treatments come in the form of medications, physical therapy, and surgery.

Medications: Medications to treat rheumatoid arthritis fall into three categories: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs), disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), and corticosteroids. These medications aim to reduce inflammation and address joint erosion.

Physical and occupational therapy: Physical and occupational therapy work by maintaining motion and functionality in affected joints. This therapy helps a person be able to perform daily activities and continue to be able to live and work more comfortably.

Surgery: Your rheumatologist may suggest joint replacement surgery if your joints are damaged to a point that is beyond treatment. These surgeries carry their own complications, so your doctor will discuss these risks and assess if you are a good candidate for such procedures. 

Should you see a doctor for rheumatoid arthritis?

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You should see a doctor as soon as you notice new symptoms consistent with rheumatoid arthritis or if you have a family history of the conditions. Rheumatoid arthritis is most easily treated when it is detected early, so the sooner the medical intervention the better. While your primary care physician may be able to diagnose the condition during a physical examination, you may want to seek a specialist such as a rheumatologist to develop an effective care plan. 

While rheumatoid arthritis is not life threatening, it can greatly impact your quality of life and daily activities without consistent treatment. You should not dismiss symptoms you suspect could be caused by rheumatoid arthritis. In some cases, the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis mimic symptoms of other conditions, so an accurate diagnosis is the first step to treating the right condition.

What is the outlook for people living with rheumatoid arthritis?

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The outlook for people living with rheumatoid arthritis can be positive with the right treatment plan and appropriate lifestyle adjustments. Although rheumatoid arthritis does impact many daily activities and your general mobility and comfort, there are effective strategies that can improve your quality of life and reduce pain. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition and can continue to progress as you age and move into different stages of the disorder. Each person will have a different outlook depending on the stage of the conditions as well as their health factors. 

In addition to using any prescribed medical treatments, people with rheumatoid arthritis can make certain lifestyle changes to supplement their treatment plan. The following list of activities can help manage the condition and improve your outlook. 

  • Maintain a healthy weight to avoid other health complications and manage your symptoms. 
  • Incorporate more weekly physical activity to strengthen your joints, reduce inflammation, and lessen pain. 
  • Quit smoking to help you remain physically active and reduce your chances of a faster progression. 

Try an anti-inflammatory diet to avoid foods that would worsen flare up symptoms.

What are the complications of rheumatoid arthritis?

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Having rheumatoid arthritis increases your chances of developing other conditions and complications. The following is a non-inclusive list of possible medical complications that can result from rheumatoid arthritis. 

  • Osteoporosis 
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Obesity 
  • Heart disease
  • Rheumatoid nodules
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Lung disease
  • Lymphoma 
  • Infections