Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects more of your body than just your joints. It can also affect your skin, your lungs and your eyes. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder and a systemic disease. The exact cause is still unknown. Genetics, hormones and your environment may contribute to developing this condition.
Unlike osteoarthritis, which is caused by wear and tear of the joints, when a person has rheumatoid arthritis their immune system attacks their own healthy tissues, as if it were attacking a virus or bacteria.
The Symptoms The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are not limited to the joint pain; this condition can affect your entire body. Typically both sides of the body are affected equally (symmetric), if the left knee is affected, so is the right.
The joint pain of RA is most commonly felt in the hands, fingers, feet, and knees, but any joint can be affected. There are many other possible symptoms
- Joint swelling and redness
- Joint stiffness and warmth
- Loss of appetite
- Morning stiffness
- Joint deformity
- Numbness and tingling
- Nodules under the skin (that should resolve with treatment)
- Rashes caused by inflamed blood vessels (vasculitis)
- Dry eyes (Sjogren’s syndrome)
- Blurred vision, light sensitivity
- Inflammation and scarring of the lungs
The symptoms will be different for every person. You do not need to have all of these symptoms to suspect RA. Your symptoms may be mild, severe or somewhere in between.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you also have a higher risk of contracting other infections, because your autoimmune system is compromised by the condition.
The Diagnosis If your doctor suspects rheumatoid arthritis, He or she will want to confirm their suspicions with blood tests. They will be looking at three possible markers for RA.
- CRP C-reactive protein which may indicate inflammation
- Anti-CCP rheumatoid factor and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide antibodies
- ESR erythrocyte sedimentation rate
Your doctor may also want images taken so the progression of the disorder and the damage to your joints can be monitored over time. The severity of your condition can also be determined by imaging. He could suggest one or more of the following methods:
The Treatment Early diagnosis can help prevent the joint and organ damage associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Your doctor’s goal is to get the disease to go into remission to stop the progression. Remission can be accomplished through several medications, either alone or in combination.
NSAIDS Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs will reduce inflammation and decrease pain. You may be able to use over-the-counter medication, but stronger NSAIDS can be prescribed. Possible side effects are tinnitus, stomach irritation, liver and kidney damage and heart problems.
Steroids Corticosteroids are used to reduce pain, swelling and joint damage. Doctors will often prescribe steroids to get the condition under control and then taper you off of the medication gradually. Side effects can include weight gain, diabetes and thinning bones, which is why many doctors resist using steroids as a long-term treatment.
DMARDs Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs can slow down the progression of rheumatoid arthritis. This can save the joints and organs from further damage from the disease. Side effects may include liver damage, lung infections and bone marrow suppression.
Biologic Agents Biologic response agents are a newer class of DMARDs. They will also slow the progression of RA. biologic agents may be used in combination with DMARDs
Therapy Your doctor may want you to consult with an occupational or physical therapist to teach you exercises that can help your joints stay strong and flexible. Your therapist may also suggest ways to modify your movements, so they are easier on your joints.
Regular Exercise Gentle exercise will help strengthen the muscles that support your joints and can help fight fatigue. Low impact activities such as walking, swimming and water aerobics are typically recommended.
Other Considerations Having rheumatoid arthritis increases your risk of heart disease, so it is important to maintain healthy blood pressure levels, and to keep cholesterol numbers in line. Exercise, including cardiovascular exercise, is highly recommended. The workout should be low- impact to reduce the risk of joint irritation
A flare is a sudden increase in disease activity. An RA flare will cause joints to be more painful and will also cause fatigue. If RA flares, it is important to get more rest and manage any stress in your life. You may want to contact your doctor. Your medication could need to be adjusted or changed to better control the condition.
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. With medication, monitoring and lifestyle modification the progression of the disorder can be managed. It is essential to stick to your medication schedule and see your doctor as often as recommended.