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HomeHealth A-Z Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis can be one of the most debilitating and painful forms of arthritis.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

(ROO-muh-toid ahr-THREYE-tis)

Definition of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a form of arthritis in which the body's immune system attacks the joints. This causes inflammation of the synovial membrane (the substance that protects and lubricates the joints) resulting in hot, painful swelling and usually joint erosion and deformity over time.

Descriptions of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Many people the world over suffer from arthritis as there are more than 100 different types of it. Unfortunately, those that are afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis suffer from one of the most painful types of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis can be one of the most debilitating forms of the condition. This condition can make normal every day actions such as walking down the stairs or picking up a jar and trying to open it, or even sitting down and standing up almost unbearably painful. Eventually these pains can lead to deformities in the joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis differs from other variations because the pain that is associated with it is not due to normal wear and tear and age alone, instead it is due to inflammation of the joints, which cause aches and pains, even swelling. As of yet, there is not a cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but with proper care it can be managed so that those that are affected can continue to live a happy, healthy, and all around enjoyable life.

Causes and Risk Factors of Rheumatoid Arthritis

To the dismay of many, there is no known cause of the condition. The most common thought is that the body's immune system attacks the synovium, or lining of the joints, which causes the pain. Research is ongoing in an attempt to find a cause, a gene, or something but as of yet there is no conclusive, clear cut cause of rheumatoid arthritis. Appropriate treatment is currently the way that afflicted individuals can deal with their condition. Protecting the joints and learning to live with the limitations will allow people to go on and continue their life.

While there is not a cure for the condition it is known that women are as much as three times more likely to be afflicted, and usually pops up when individuals are somewhere from the age of 20 to 50, but after 80 the chances of developing the condition lessens. While it's usually people in the 20 to 50 age bracket it is important to remember that anyone can get rheumatoid arthritis from small children to adults that are over 50. The older you get the more likely you are to develop the disease, and being female means that you are also more at risk.

Others at risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis are those that smoke for extended periods of time, those that have a genetic predisposition, and those that have been exposed to bacteria or viruses that affect the joints and surrounding areas.

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

While the experience of each person diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis is different there are some very common symptoms and signs that one can look for. Common symptoms include:

  • Varying levels of pain and even swelling in the joints
  • Pain in the small joints of the hands and feet
  • Aching and stiffness in muscles and joints in the body
  • Decreasing strength in the muscles around the affected joints
  • Limited motion in painful joints
  • Fever
  • Deformity of joints
  • Fatigue, tiredness, and general loss of energy
  • Malaise

It's also important to know that rheumatoid arthritis will often affect more than one joint at any given time and will usually affect both sides of the body at the same time. When the disease begins it will normally affect the joints in hands, feet, wrists, feet, and even the knees. As time goes on more joints will become involved including the elbows, hips, jaw, neck, and shoulders. Many individuals will develop small, usually painless nodules under the skin at different pressure points and can be as small as a pencil eraser and can get as big as a golf ball. In addition to joints, those with the disease can also experience involvement of the lungs, tear glands, salivary glands, and even the lining of your heart.

Diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Your doctor will often suggest that he or she believes that you may have rheumatoid arthritis. There are many different ways to diagnose the disease and those include blood tests, and imaging. If your doctor orders blood tests, you will probably be tested for your erythrocyte sedimentation rate, also known as sed rate or ESR, which will show the that there is ongoing inflammation in your body. If you have rheumatoid arthritis your doctor will know because your ESR will likely be quite high.

Another blood test that your doctor may request is one that looks for a specific antibody. If you have or are developing rheumatoid arthritis the antibody will be found through the blood test.

In addition to the blood tests your doctor could request some imaging to be done. Through x-rays your doctor will be able to see if you have rheumatoid arthritis. If it is found that you do have rheumatoid arthritis x-rays may be taken at regular intervals to see how the disease is spreading.

Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but there are some treatments that allow people to go about living their lives with no regular limitations or at least limited physical limitations. Most patients will simply be able to take medications while others will need to have surgery at some point.

There are many medications that can treat the pain and stiffness of the disease as well as slow the progress of the disease. Common drugs that are taken or prescribed are NSAIDs which include aspirin, ketoprofen, naproxen, tolmetin, diclofenac, Relafen, and Indocin. These drugs can help with the inflammation but if used over a long period of time regularly they can cause a wide variety of problems like stomach and intestinal bleeding, kidney problems, and more.

In addition rheumatoid arthritis can be treated with COX-2 inhibitors which are medications such as Celebrex. These drugs suppress the enzyme that may be causing the inflammation in your joints. In addition to suppressing the enzyme this group of drugs is often preferred because it does not have as many side effects as the NSAID's.

In addition to these types of drugs many doctors choose to treat the disease with corticosteroids such as Medrol. Disease Modifying anti rheumatic drugs are also helpful and include medications just as Plaquenil, Riduara, Dynacin, and more. Still more drug options include immunosuppressant medication, TNF blockers, Interleukin-1 receptor antagonists, Abatacept, Rituxan, and antidepressants since many people with the disease suffer from depression, too.

In addition to medications there are many surgical techniques that can be helpful in restoring joints and slowing the breakdown of other joints. Prosorba column filters antibodies that cause pain and inflammation in the joints and muscles. This procedure has to be performed once every 12 weeks and is only for severe cases.

Joint replacement surgery is an option when drugs, therapies, and even physical therapy are not helping. This is a last course of action because replacing a joint is painful, takes a considerable amount of time to heal, and is simply not the first choice for any patient, but it's the only option for many people.

Prevention of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Preventing rheumatoid arthritis is quite difficult since we aren't quite sure yet what causes the disease. Taking care of your joints from a young age is helpful, as is avoiding smoking. Getting all of the nutrients possible to help build strong muscles is a good idea, but may or may not keep you from developing the disease. Though you cannot always prevent the disease, you can help slow the process of degeneration by visiting your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

External Resources

Arthritis Foundation

American College of Rheumatology

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