Rheumatoid arthritis is classified as an autoimmune disorder. Although it causes joint symptoms, it differs from osteoarthritis.
The body’s immune system protects it from foreign invaders, such as bacteria. When the immune system detects something harmful, it starts to kill the substance. In people with rheumatoid arthritis, their immune system mistakenly attacks the tissues and joints as if they were harmful. The membrane that surrounds the joints is also attacked. Inflammation develops, which can lead to joint damage.
The reason some people develop rheumatoid arthritis is not known. But there does appear to be some risk factors. For example, most cases of rheumatoid arthritis develop after age 40. Women also have a higher incidence of developing the condition, although it is not clear why. Having a family history of the disease also increases your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Symptoms and Natural History
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. There may also be reduced range of motion and redness in the affected joints. Although any joint can be affected, mostly commonly symptoms involve the small joints in the feet and hands. In addition to joint pain, symptoms include fever, fatigue and loss of appetite. Firm bumps may also develop under the skin on the arms.
The condition may start with mild pain and stiffness in the small joints in the hands. As it progresses, more joints may be affected, such as the shoulders, elbows, knees and hips. Some people may have periods of remission where symptoms are mild, followed by a flare-up of more intense symptoms. If the disease is not treated, damage to the cartilage can occur, and the joint can become deformed.
Rheumatoid arthritis can affect all areas of a person’s life. Fatigue, pain and limited range of motion can affect both work life and personal responsibilities, such as childcare. Dealing with a chronic illness can also lead to emotional challenges, such depression and anxiety.
As with most conditions, a medical history and physical exam are needed. During the exam, your doctor will evaluate your joints for pain, redness and swelling. Blood tests will also be needed to check for an elevated sedimentation rate, which occurs with rheumatoid arthritis.
Self-help Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Since rheumatoid arthritis can cause fatigue, making lifestyle changes to increase your energy level is important. For example, getting enough sleep each night, learning ways to relax and exercising can all combat fatigue. Applying heat or ice may also be an effective self-help treatment to decrease stiffness and pain.
Standard Clinical Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis
There are several medications that are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis including steroids, biological agents and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs. Steroids can decrease pain and inflammation. Biological agents target the immune system, which is attacking the joints. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs can slow the progression of the disease.
Each class of medications can have side effects including suppressed immune system function and liver damage. It’s always essential to weigh the risks versus the benefits of each medication before taking it.
In some cases, surgery may be used to repair joint damage. Various procedures may be used including tendon repair, joint replacement and joint fusion.
Arthritis Foundation. What is Rheumatoid Arthritis? http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/rheumatoid-arthritis/what-is-rheumatoid-arthritis.php
American College of Rheumatology. Rheumatoid Arthritis. http://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Rheumatoid-Arthritis