What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
The good news is when caught early, rheumatoid arthritis is medically managed better today than compared to years ago. It affects women more than men and typically shows up between the ages of 40-60. It is a chronic and incurable disease that causes joint stiffness (especially in the morning), severe pain, and joint deformity.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease which means the very system that fights off infections and bad cells, turns on itself and decides to attack the good cells. There is no cure for an autoimmune disease, but medicine has advanced, and now there are many treatment options for managing the various forms of this disease.
The cause of an autoimmune disease is not known. Researchers have found it tends to be hereditary and the triggering event may be caused by an infection, certain drugs, or possibly environmental factors. There is much to learn about this disease.
One of the common factors in diagnosing RA, it typically is bilateral disease which means if it affects one side of the body like in the hands, knees, shoulders, etc. it will also affect the other side. RA is unlike osteoarthritis which may affect one joint or one side of the body, but not necessarily bilaterally.
RA attacks the lining in the joint causing pain, swelling, and deformity. It most often affects the hands and knees, but it can also affect other joints as well as our skin, eyes, lungs, heart, blood, and even our nerves.
What causes rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. The exact cause as to why our bodies attack themselves is still being studied today. In RA, the disease specifically targets the synovium which is a membrane surrounding a joint that is filled with fluid. The synovium not only lubricates the joint, but it also provides nutrients to the bones and cartilage (cushion of the joint).
When the body begins to attack itself, the RA affects the synovium which means the cartilage and bones can’t get the nutrients needed to stay healthy. The synovium membrane becomes thick and then swelling, and inflammation begins as this is the body’s defense mechanism; however, in the case of RA it cannot fight against itself.
Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Symptoms of RA can range from mild to severe. It is a progressive and an incurable disease; therefore, ongoing medical treatment is advised. Commonly RA affects both sides of the body which differentiates it from other forms of arthritis. Common symptoms of RA are:
- Dry eyes and mouth
- Joint deformity
- Loss of range of motion
- Low-grade fevers
- Tender, swollen, and red joints
- Weight loss
How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?
Rheumatoid arthritis can be tricky to diagnosis as early onset symptoms can mimic other forms of arthritis or other diseases. If you or your physician suspect RA, it is recommended you see a rheumatologist who is an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of this disease.
The rheumatologist will complete a full medical history review and a complete physical exam. Most likely, blood work will be done as there are some telltale signs of RA including:
- Anemia (low red blood cell count)
- Rheumatoid factor (antibody or protein that is found in the blood)
- Elevated erythrocytes (confirms inflammation is present)
Also, an X-Ray or MRI may also be done to look at the integrity of the joint space and structure. In early stages, there may be minimal changes in the joint, but over time as the condition progresses, the rheumatologist will monitor the changes.
Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Research shows for those who do not manage their RA, they not only suffer from severe pain and joint deformity, but they are also at higher risk of heart disease and stroke, which is a chronic disease that needs medical attention.
Today, medications combined with staying active has proven RA can go into remission. Because RA is a chronic disease, there are times of flare-up and remission. During the flare-up times, it is critical to reducing activity levels and work closely with your rheumatologist on medicine management.
RA sufferers respond well to low-impact exercises such as walking, aerobics in the pool, yoga, etc. These activities help maintain range of motion and strength without the added stress of high impact exercises.
Beyond medications and self-management, physical or occupational therapy (PT or OT) is recommended especially during the flare-ups with this disease. A therapist will work with you on customizing any splints or braces needed to help prevent joint deformity. Also, he or she will work on helping with joint protective techniques to reduce the amount of stress on your joints.
If you manage your weight, stay active, and work regularly with your rheumatologist on medical management, RA is less disabling than it used to be. In fact, recent research shows RA cases are not only better managed today, but also there are less overall cases being reported.
Early intervention to RA is critical to preventing deformity and disability. The sooner you address your symptoms, the more likely conservative care will work for you. As a consumer of health care, you have a choice in finding the right provider for you. Do your homework and search for a health care provider, like a physical therapist, with excellent outcomes, great customer reviews, and can provide you the care you need for a reasonable cost.
Most states have direct access to a physical therapist, meaning you can go directly to a physical therapist without a physician order. To determine if your state has direct access, please visit the American Physical Therapy Association’s website Physical Therapy Direct Access By State.
To get started with conservative care today, you can find a highly qualified PT or OT in your area. There are many qualified PTs and OTs, so to find one near you, please click on Find A Clinic. This link will help you find a PT or OT that has top national rankings for treating autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.