You're likely more familiar with osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis that's caused by the breakdown and inflammation of joint cartilage. But many people suffer from another type of arthritis, which is known as rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The result of an autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis can damage more than just your joints.
Read on to learn the causes, symptoms, and treatment of this painful condition.
While genetics and environmental factors seem to play some sort of role in the development of RA, rheumatoid arthritis is something of a mystery. Because like other autoimmune diseases, doctors don't know the exact cause of the disease. Why the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy joint and body tissues rather than foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria is a mystery waiting to be solved. Since it’s unknown what causes the disease, avoiding it is also tricky.
This immune response causes inflammation in the membranes that surround your joints. The inflammation leads to pain and swelling and if left untreated long enough, can lead to joint and bone damage.
You may have noticed an elderly woman with knuckles that looked swollen and misshapen. Chances are she suffers from RA. Most often affecting joints of the hands, wrists, elbows, feet, ankles, and knees, rheumatoid arthritis causes warmness, tenderness, and swelling in joints. Over time the affected joints may become disfigured. Joints may feel stiffer in the morning and after sitting around. In addition to painful joints, you may also experience loss of appetite, fever, and fatigue. Unlike osteoarthritis, you'll likely feel pain in joints on both sides of your body.
Nearly half of those with RA also deal with symptoms of inflammation in other parts of the body like the skin, lungs, heart, nerves, bones, eyes, blood vessels, and mouth. Fortunately, the symptoms aren’t a constant battle. Rather, symptoms of RA usually come and go, seeming to go into remission only to flare up again for days or months at time.
The sooner you begin aggressive treatments for RA, the better the outcome. So see your doctor if you experience unusual pain or swelling in your joints. Through a series of blood and imaging tests, your doctor will be able to confirm or deny a diagnosis of RA. While there's currently no cure for this disease, there are ways to relieve symptoms, stop inflammation, and prevent further tissue damage.
Treatment will likely include various medications. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are used to relieve pain and reduce inflammation; corticosteroids are effective for controlling inflammation; and disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARD) work to change the course of the disease to slow its progression. On top of medication, physical or occupational therapy may be used to teach exercises and daily habits that protect and strengthen your joints.
When RA causes permanent damage to joints and bones, surgery may be recommended as a last resort to remove damaged joint membranes, repair tendons, fuse joints, or completely replace joints.
Exercise may be especially difficult during RA flare-ups, but is considered an effective way of managing symptoms and improving everyday functioning. Current research shows the exercise program known as Tai chi to be one form of exercise that helps reduce RA pain. This type of exercise involves stretches, deep breathing, and gentle, low-impact exercises. Other types of exercise recommended for RA patients include yoga, walking, swimming, water aerobics, or weight training. Remember, exercise should never be painful—even if living with a painful condition like rheumatoid arthritis.