Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, inflammatory disease that primarily affects the joints of the extremities, including the hands, feet, knees and elbows. This aggressive disease typically affects the joints on both sides of the body. This autoimmune disorder is considered to be a systemic or “entire body” disease because it can damage the organs of the cardiovascular, respiratory and other body systems. Nearly 1.5 million adults have rheumatoid arthritis, but women are three times more likely to develop the disease. This form of arthritis is usually found in people over age 40.
Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis
The immune system normally protects the body by attacking foreign substances like bacteria and viruses. With rheumatoid arthritis, however, the immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of the joints. This results in inflammation and thickening of the joint fluid, which in turn leads to pain, and over time, cartilage and bone damage. The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known, though genetics are considered to be a strong factor. Although this disorder cannot be inherited, the presence of certain genes may make people more susceptible to environmental factors that trigger the immune system to attack the joints.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis
In its early stages, rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are easily confused with those of many other diseases. And no one particular diagnostic test can positively confirm an RA diagnosis. The doctor will typically take a medical history and perform a physical examination to determine the locations of the affected joints. A physical exam can also reveal rheumatoid nodules, firm bumps under the skin that are often seen with this disease. Blood tests may be performed, as the presence of certain antibodies, including the rheumatoid-factor antibody, can help verify a diagnosis.
Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rest and exercise can help treat rheumatoid arthritis, but steroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often used as well to decrease pain and swelling, and to ease joint stiffness. In some cases, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are prescribed. These strong medications can slow the disease’s progression and suppress the immune system’s attack on the joints. Physical and occupational therapy can also help people manage this condition. If medication and other forms of treatment fail to relieve pain and slow joint damage, surgery may be considered to repair, replace or fuse the affected joints.