What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
RA is an autoimmune disease. This means that the symptoms are caused by the body’s immune system attacking its own tissues. This immune system response causes chronic inflammation, which can lead to long-term pain, joint deformity and possibly disability.
In addition, as RA progresses, it can cause or contribute to other health problems, such as:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Heart disease, such as atherosclerosis and pericarditis
- Lung disease
- More fat compared to lean mass (bones, muscles, etc.), even in people with a normal body mass index (BMI)
Causes and Risk Factors
In RA, the immune system attacks the synovium, which is a membrane that line joints and tendons. Although the cause of RA is unknown—there is likely a genetic component—there are a number of risk factors associated with developing the condition:
- Age: RA most often develops between the ages of 40 and 60, though it can occur at any age
- Environmental factors: Exposure to asbestos and silica has been linked to RA
- Obesity: People who are obese are more likely to develop RA
- Sex: Women are more likely than men to have RA
- Smoking: Smoking increases the risk of developing RA
Initial symptoms may be pain in the smaller joints such as the fingers and toes. As the condition progresses, larger joints, as well as other parts of the body, may become involved, including the:
- Bone marrow
- Blood vessels
Other symptoms of RA can include:
- Joint stiffness
- Warmth, tenderness and swelling at the joints
- Weight loss
Early treatment for RA leads to better results, but early diagnosis is difficult. Symptoms appear gradually and are common to many other conditions. There is also no single test for RA, but doctors can use multiple types of tests to diagnose the condition.
Often, doctors will order blood tests. They will be looking for chemical evidence—known as biomarkers—of inflammation and of immune system activity since in RA the immune system causes inflammation in the joints.
Physical exam findings can include warmth, redness and swelling of the joints. Imaging studies such as X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are useful to evaluate the extent of the disease.
RA has no cure, but its symptoms can be managed and its progress can be slowed. There are three main modes of treatment: medication, physical therapy and surgery.
Medications can include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Steroid injections or pills
- Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
- Biologics—also known as biopharmaceuticals—which are drugs that are derived from biological sources
In occupational or physical therapy, a therapist can teach someone with RA exercises to keep the joints loose and healthy, or how to do common tasks in new ways that work around the condition.
There are a number of surgical options available to treat the complications from RA, such as:
- Synovectomy, which destroys or removes the inflamed joint lining tissue
- Tendon repair
- Joint replacement
- Joint fusion
If you suspect you have rheumatoid arthritis or are looking for options to manage your condition, schedule an appointment with one of our specialists today.
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