Written by Michele Wheat
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that affects more than one million Americans. Approximately 75% of those suffering with rheumatoid arthritis are women. While the disease most often begins when people are between their 40s and 60s, it can begin at any age. Rheumatoid arthritis is considered a chronic disease that causes stiffness, pain, swelling, and limited function and motion of many joints. RA can affect any joint in the body but most often affects the small joints located in the feet and hands.
Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that certain cells in the immune system do not work correctly, and begin attacking healthy tissues. The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known though new research is beginning to uncover information about what causes the immune system to attack the body, causing inflammation. With rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation is focused in the synovium, which is the tissue that lines joints. Cells in the immune system release chemicals that cause inflammation and these chemicals cause damage to cartilage and bones. It is likely that there are other things that play a role in rheumatoid arthritis such as genes that may affect the immune system, making some people more prone to certain diseases.
How RA is Diagnosed
The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can be subtle at first, making it difficult to diagnose. If a doctor thinks you may have rheumatoid arthritis, they will send you to a rheumatologist who will perform a physical exam. The diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis will depend on the results of the physical exam, and symptoms you are experiencing. Blood tests are often also used to confirm a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Signs of RA can include anemia, antibodies to cyclic citrullinated peptides, rheumatoid factor, and elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate. Doctors may also use x-rays to help detect RA, though results may be normal in the early stages of the disease. There is no single test that can confirm a diagnosis or rheumatoid arthritis, so doctors must make their diagnosis by looking at the symptoms and results from x-rays, lab tests, and the physical exam.
Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis with treatment meant to lessen symptoms. Controlling RA often requires an aggressive treatment plan. Patients often begin taking disease modifying antirheumatic drugs which help to relieve symptoms and also slow the progression of the disease. Anti-inflammatory drugs are also often prescribed to help with fever, pain, and swelling. People with more severe symptoms may require stronger medications. Often, treatment for rheumatoid arthritis includes more than just medicines. Most patients wind up working with a team of medical professionals.
Coping With RA
If rheumatoid arthritis is not well controlled, sufferers can have a higher risk for stroke and heart disease. People with RA should try to be physically active, and practice range of motion exercises to keep joints flexible. Exercises that help to boost muscle strength can improve overall health and take some of the pressure off of joints. Living with a chronic disease can be life changing but a good team of doctors can help.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Resources
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