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What is Rheumatoid Arthritis by Kathleen Province

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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes painful inflammation of the joints. RA is one of the most serious and also common forms of arthritis, affecting more than one million Americans annually. RA is a chronic disease, mainly characterized by inflammation of the lining of the joints which causes swelling that can result in joint deformity and bone erosion. This then leads to long-term joint damage, chronic pain, and loss of function for the sufferers of this disease. In addition, RA can also have an effect on some organs of the body such as the eyes, skin, blood vessels, and lungs.

A flare-up of RA is caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking the body’s own tissues. RA causes the immune system to attack the synovium, which is the lining of the membranes that surround the joints. The result is inflammation that causes the synovium to thicken, which can eventually destroy the bone and cartilage within that joint. This over time causes the joint to lose its shape and alignment because the tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together weaken and stretch from the inflammation. Doctors aren’t sure what exactly beings this process, however, genetics is likely to play a role. Although one’s genes won’t directly cause RA, they can make one more susceptible to certain environmental factors that can trigger the disease. In addition, one’s sex and age can also play a role in susceptibility. Women are 2.5 times more likely to have RA than men, and although the onset of RA can be at any age, it typically occurs between 40-60 years old.

RA tends to affect smaller joints first, such as the ones in the hands and feet. Then as the disease progresses, symptoms will often spread to the shoulders, hips, elbows, ankles, and knees. Usually one will show symptoms in the same area on both sides of their body. Symptoms of RA include tender, warm, swollen joints, morning stiffness that lasts into the day, firm bumps of tissue under the skin of your arms, fatigue, fever, and weight loss. The signs of RA can vary in severity, and can also have periods of relative remission in-between flares.

People who suffer from RA are also at a higher risk for other diseases, such as Osteoporosis, Carpal tunnel syndrome, heart problems, and lung disease. The RA itself, plus the medication used for treating it, increases the risk of osteoporosis because it weakens the bones, making them more prone to fracture. Carpal tunnel syndrome can be caused if the inflammation from RA compresses the nerve that serves the hand and fingers. In addition, the increased risk of inflammation and scarring of lung tissue can lead to lung disease. RA can also increase the risk of hardened and blocked arteries, as well as inflammation of the sac that encloses the heart, causing heart problems.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for RA at this point. However, there are many things one can do to alleviate the symptoms of the disease. Treatment is most effective when started as soon as possible before there is any permanent damage done. People who suffer from RA usually need to make a treatment plan with their rheumatologist. A treatment plan usually includes a combination of medication, rest, physical activity, joint protection, the use of heat or cold to reduce pain, and seeing a physical or occupational therapist. Typical medications that would be given are: DMARDs which include methotrexate, leflunomide, hydroxychloroquine, and sulfasalazine. These drugs can help relieve symptoms and also slow the progression of the disease. Although RA is a lifelong disease, many people have success with treatment; you just have to find the one that is right for you.





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