Arthritis is a general term used to describe inflammation in the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic type of arthritis that affects joints symmetrically (on both sides of the body), making it distinguishable from other types of arthritis. This condition may also affect the skin, eyes, blood, lungs, or heart.
About 1 percent of all Americans have rheumatoid arthritis. It’s considered an autoimmune disease, which means the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissues. Rheumatoid arthritis is two to three times more common in women than men but men’s symptoms tend to be more severe. It typically happens in middle age, but younger children and the elderly can also get rheumatoid arthritis.
Risk Factors and Causes
It is not known exactly what causes rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors think it is a combination of genetic, hormonal, and environmental factors. Something seems to trigger the immune system to attack the joints and sometimes other organs. Some research suggests that bacteria or a virus may alter the immune system, thus provoking the attacks. Other theories suggest that smoking may lead to this form of arthritis. Research has yet to determine what role genetics play, though some people do seem to have an inherited factor that increases their chances of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include joint pain and swelling, fatigue, and stiffness; especially in the morning or after sitting for long periods of time. Rheumatoid arthritis affects everyone differently. Some people experience joint symptoms that develop gradually over several years; however, others experience symptoms that develop quickly. Some individuals may experience symptoms for a limited time, followed by a period of remission where they experience no symptoms.
Rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed from a combination of factors. The location and symmetry of painful joints is an important factor, along with joint stiffness (especially first thing in the morning), and nodules under the skin. Blood testing can help doctors find other rheumatoid factors, which can isolate this from other types of arthritis. X rays are used to define the extent of joint damage and help determine the appropriate treatment plan for the patient.
The type of treatment and prognosis will depend on several factors such as the person’s age, medical history, overall health, and the severity of the arthritis. Medications are available to reduce joint pain, inflammation, and swelling. Some drugs can even prevent or slow the progression of the disease.
Medications commonly prescribed include anti-inflammatory painkillers (such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen), topical pain relievers, cortical steroids, and narcotic-strength pain relievers. Surgery may be required when damage from the rheumatoid arthritis has become too severe or pain cannot controlled with drugs.
Other medications known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs will work to interfere with or suppress the immune system attacks on the joints. These drugs will help slow or stop the progression of the disease but will not necessarily repair any existing joint damage.
Though there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, early treatment has been shown to help prevent the disability. In order to improve prognosis, a balance of rest and exercise is important. Using a cane or splints can help. As the joint inflammation gets better, exercise is necessary in order to keep the joints flexible and to strengthen the muscles that surround the joint. Doing range-of-motion exercises will help keep your joints healthy; however any and all exercise routine should be approved by a doctor.
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