Rheumatoid Arthritis: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Rheumatoid Arthritis: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Jan 28, 2022

Having rheumatoid arthritis is a challenge that more than 13 million people are currently going through. Even though scientists cannot pinpoint the exact reason why joints get swollen and inflamed seemingly out of nowhere, the condition is completely manageable if a person sticks to the right routine and takes prescribed medications.

However, it can be quite difficult to figure the best way to approach rheumatoid arthritis out without learning the basics first. And, before scheduling an appointment with your doctor, it will be helpful to read this article about rheumatoid arthritis, as it will answer the first and the most important questions that come to mind when this disease is being mentioned.

Rheumatoid Arthritis 101: Its Nature and Brief History

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that “tricks” a body into attacking its own healthy tissue. This results in joint stiffness and other telltale signs. RA has nothing to do with the “wear-and-tear” nature of osteoarthritis, which means that rheumatoid arthritis treatment won’t be the same as with other related conditions. However, when it comes to pain relief, some medications, such as certain NSAIDs, may come in handy in both cases.

Usually, in the case of RA, the immune system attacks more than one joint. Still, the disease usually manifests with painful symptoms in a wrist, knee, or any other joint only. All RA cases are somewhat unique and definitely require medical attention.

The disease is as old as times, and its first mention goes back to 1500 BC. The empirical research started in 1858 when Alfred Baring Garrod gave the condition its current name and described it in a way that distinguishes rheumatoid arthritis from other arthritis-related conditions, such as gout.

The observations conducted by many scientists throughout the next decades led to the formation of organizations that concentrate their efforts on improving the methods of RA therapy and raising awareness about the disease. One of the examples of such organizations is the International League of Associations for Rheumatology (ILAR).

What Are the Signs of Having RA?

What Are the Signs of Having RA?

Some of the common signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are:

  • Swelling;
  • Joint inflammation;
  • Joint pain;
  • Stiffness;
  • Fatigue;
  • Redness;
  • Troubles moving, and some others.

Sometimes, the symptoms cause just mild inconveniences. Still, the condition needs managing, as it tends to get worse with age.

When joint pain becomes too pronounced, patients take special medicines to address this issue. Generally, the right medications in conjunction with maintenance therapy are able to successfully relieve pain and reduce joint swelling in people with RA.

When Do People Develop This Condition?

Although RA is sometimes mistakenly associated with older age only, rheumatoid arthritis affects all demographics. Still, it is true that, with age, the risk factors play a bigger role, and developing rheumatoid arthritis after the age of 30-40 is more likely than when a person is still in his 20s or younger.

According to the statistics, it is most common for women to get rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed between the age of 30-60. Men also suffer from this condition, but for them, the onset usually occurs somewhat later in life.

At the onset, the symptoms may be mild. This is why a lot of people don’t pay proper attention to rheumatoid arthritis at its early stage and don’t come to a doctor for medical advice.

Still, the collected data tells us that signs tend to get worse throughout the next 3-6 months. When RA is left unattended, a person is at the risk of losing their ability to work within the next decade or earlier.

Who Is at the Increased Risk of Developing RA?

Some people are at a higher risk of the body’s healthy tissues being attacked by the immune system. The factors that increase the possibilities of getting RA are:

  • Age. RA is more common in people older than 30-40 years old;
  • Sex. The disease occurs in women more often than in men;
  • Genetics. If a person’s family member has or had RA, the risks of inflammatory arthritis are higher.

These characteristics are currently impossible or hard to change. However, people predisposed to this inflammatory disease can still lower their risks by adopting certain lifestyle changes.

What Are the Contributing Factors?

Taking these contributing factors into account may help people with a predisposition to RA avoid severe complications (such as rheumatoid nodules and others) caused by the condition:

  • Environmental factors. RA’s manifestation can be triggered by bacteria and viruses;
  • Obesity and inactivity. When joints are not used to normal physical activity, they are more prone to arthritis and inflammation. This is why an active life is an important part of preventing and managing RA;
  • Smoking and drinking. The negative consequences of taking nicotine and alcohol are widely known, and potential RA-induced joint damage is one of them.

An interesting fact is that a breastfeeding woman’s chances of developing RA are considerably lower than that of the other demographics.

How to Test for Rheumatoid Arthritis?

As common as it is, rheumatoid arthritis is still tricky to diagnose unless the symptoms are already more than obvious. This makes early treatment for the disease somewhat hard to start, as many people prefer to not pay a visit to a doctor unless it’s an urgency.

Usually, alongside physical examination and the use of X-rays, MRI, and joint scanning, doctors give their patients referral to further blood tests:

  • C-reactive protein (CRP) test. The higher the CRP level in the blood is, the higher are the chances of having an inflammation process in the joints;
  • Rheumatoid factor (RF) test. When there is too much RF in the blood sample, it means that these proteins are highly likely to attack healthy tissues of the joints;
  • CCP antibodies. The results tell a doctor how many antibodies a person’s immune system releases;
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR). This test shows the degree of inflammation.

Before undergoing blood tests, make sure to follow all the doctor’s instructions. In the majority of cases, a patient needs to refrain from eating for 8-12 hours before testing.

When you receive the results of the test, let your healthcare provider interpret them for you. Keep in mind that one test is not enough to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis. Nonetheless, when performed in conjunction, the tests provide reliable data.

Can Joint Damage Be Reversed?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease, which means that a patient experiences a cycle of flares and remissions. The direct causes of the disease are still unknown, and doctors hope to obtain more data from upcoming rheumatoid arthritis research.

That being said, joint and organ damage caused by RA is unlikely to be completely reversed. However, the condition can still be managed, and it’s a doctor’s job to make sure that a patient understands the importance of sticking up with therapy.

When left untreated and neglected, RA results in other serious health conditions. In addition to swollen joints, patients can develop problems with the lungs and heart, so proper treatment is of huge importance for all patients with RA.

How to Manage Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Treating arthritis takes time and effort, and it consists of two parts – physical therapy and taking proper medications.

These are the steps that people with RA can take to affect their condition positively:

  • Gentle exercises. Fitness will make your muscles stronger and will affect your blood vessels positively. However, make sure that your training program is not too much and exhausting;
  • Stretching. Increased agility contributes greatly to an overall physical shape. This step is a must-do before starting your exercises as well;
  • Eating healthy. Receiving enough vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial components is a crucial part of leading an active lifestyle and boosting your immune system. For example, people with RA usually benefit from such supplements as omega-3 fatty acids;
  • Relaxation. Stress is a strong contributing factor for a lot of diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis. Choose the most appealing way of relaxation for you: yoga, meditation, listening to music, or any other method that will reduce your level of stress.

As far as medications go, rheumatoid arthritis can be treated with further drugs:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – ibuprofen, diclofenac, and others;
  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) – leflunomide, sulfasalazine, and others;
  • Steroids – prednisone, hydrocortisone, and others;
  • Biologic agents – abatacept, tocilizumab, anakinra, and others.

Neither of these medications should be taken without a doctor’s approval, as all of them may cause mild to severe side effects when used uncontrollably. Even such a common NSAID like ibuprofen can lead to digestion problems, high blood pressure, and kidney diseases.

Summarizing

Rheumatoid arthritis is not a condition that can be taken lightly. Even if a person hasn’t yet developed the disease but is predisposed to it, they should pay close attention to their health and take all the measures necessary to prevent further complications.

The earlier RA management starts, the more effective it will be. Naturally, if you suspect that you might have rheumatoid arthritis, the best person to provide you with qualified medical advice is your doctor.

However, the majority of recommendations are about living a healthy lifestyle, which would be beneficial even for people who were never predisposed to rheumatoid arthritis in the first place. And, if you look for medications to relieve symptoms and reduce pain, ask your disease control professional for recommendations.

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