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What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis? Print E-mail

Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis, affecting about two to three million Americans.  Most often it first appears between the ages of 25 and 50 but it can occur in children and in senior citizens. Three quarters of all people with this disease are women.

It is a symmetric disease, meaning that it will usually involve the same joints on both sides of the body. Most commonly, the joints of the fingers, wrists, arms and legs are affected and swelling, pain, deformity and stiffness are typically present. Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis may also affect the heart, lungs and eyes of some patients and can cause an overall feeling of sickness and fatigue as well as weight loss and fever.

Not only joints are affected with this disease. Muscles, tendons and tissues surrounding joints may become inflamed and reduce your mobility. You may feel a squishy sensation when you push down on a joint. This is fluid in the joint capsule and it can cause pressure on the cartilage that is surrounding and protecting the bones.

Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown. Many doctors believe that a virus or a bacterium may prompt rheumatoid arthritis to develop in those people who have a genetic predisposition to it. Seven out of ten people who have rheumatoid arthritis have an inherited chemical marker on their cells leading doctors to believe that there is a correlation.

Some experts think rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body tissue is the victim of an immune response against itself. The body creates antibodies that actually attack the joints causing the swelling and redness. Excess fluid will flow into the joint space making joint motion painful.

Severe stress may also play a role. In some cases, rheumatoid arthritis will first appear after a person has experienced a life-changing event like a divorce, loss of a job, death of a loved one or a severe injury.

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

In many cases, rheumatoid arthritis develops gradually and can come and go over the years. About half of all people with this disease will have a remission within two years. However, the symptoms can return, as there is no permanent cure for rheumatoid arthritis. If you developed rheumatoid arthritis after 60 years of age, you have a greater chance of having a milder case than someone who developed the disease when younger.

The joint lining, called the synovium, becomes inflamed in cases of rheumatoid arthritis, leading to pain, stiffness, warmth, redness and swelling. These inflamed cells release an enzyme that may even digest cartilage and bone. It is important to start a course of treatment so that you can continue to live your life the way you want.  

Other symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Fatigue and/or weakness
  • Stiffness following periods of immobility which gradually improves with movement
  • Rheumatoid nodules (lumps of inflamed cells) under the skin usually found on the bony part of the forearm, ankle and fingers
  • Minor fevers, anemia, weight loss

Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis

If your doctor suspects that you have rheumatoid arthritis, he or she will order a series of diagnostic tests after performing a physical examination. One test he or she may order looks for an antibody called rheumatoid factor. Approximately 85 percent of people with rheumatoid arthritis have this antibody.

Once a diagnosis is made, you can start a series of treatments designed to help you continue to live your life. Advances in treatment have been made so that few people with rheumatoid arthritis end up bed ridden.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen are used to reduce pain and swelling in the short term. Disease modifying drugs (DMARDs) may also be used if you don’t respond to NSAID treatment. These slow acting drugs are designed to help slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis. Over the long term, biologic response modifiers may be used. These drugs are either injected or given intravenously. Corticosteroid medications, like Prednisone, may also be used to help you during flare-ups.

Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your arthritis. It will increase your strength and give you endurance. Stretching will help your joints retain or gain flexibility. Exercise not only helps your body but also will improve your state of mind. Remember that there are many ways to exercise. Speak to your doctor before starting an exercise program.

In some cases, surgery may be necessary. Surgery, such as joint replacement, is considered when you and your doctor have concluded that previous treatments for pain and mobility have been unsuccessful and your quality of life is suffering. In addition to joint replacement surgery, other types of surgery include the reconstruction or fusion of a joint and the removal of diseased tissue from the joint (synovectomy).


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