Overview and Facts
There are over 100 types of arthritis, and one of the more common types is rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is a type of chronic arthritis that usually occurs in joints such as hands, knees and wrists. The joint pain typically occurs in both sides of the body, a key characteristic that helps distinguish rheumatoid arthritis from other types of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis begins when the immune system mistakes healthy tissue for a foreign substance and subsequently attacks itself, causing the joint lining to swell.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects about 1% of the United States populations. It is two to three more times common in women that men and usually occurs in people between ages of 25-55. However, children and the elderly are not immune to developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Signs and Symptoms
Key symptoms of arthritis include joint pain, swelling and stiffness. In rheumatoid arthritis, joint inflammation is the primary symptom. Wrists, feet, ankles and fingers are the most commonly affected.
Early signs of rheumatoid arthritis:
- Widespread muscle aches
- Loss of appetite
- Morning stiffness
Eventually, joint pain will appear – symptoms of joint pain include:
- Stiffness – reduced range of motion in the joints
- Inflammation – redness and tenderness of the joints
- Swelling – swollen, puffy area around the joint
Additional rheumatoid symptoms may also include:
- Numbness or tingling
- Swollen glands
- Eye burning and/or itching
- Lung inflammation
Causes and Diagnosis
In general, arthritis involves the breakdown of cartilage, which usually protects the joint and allows for smooth movements. When cartilage breaks down, the bones are not protected so they rub together causing inflammation and stiffness. However, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the immune system attacks joint linings. It is thought that the cause of rheumatoid arthritis is a result of a combination of environmental and genetic factors, including heredity, hormones and possibly an infection by a bacterium or virus.
To determine whether your symptoms are a result of rheumatoid arthritis or another condition, your doctor will take a detailed medical history. A physical examination will be done to see if fluid is collecting in the joint. Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult as there is no single test, but the American College of Rheumatology uses this list of criteria:
- Morning stiffness in and around the joints for at least one hour
- Swelling or fluid around three or more joints simultaneously
- At least one swollen area in the wrist, hand or finger joints
- Arthritis involving the same joint on both sides of the body (symmetric arthritis)
- Rheumatoid nodules, which are firm lumps in the skin, present in the pressure points of the body
- Abnormal amounts of rheumatoid factor in the blood
- X-ray changes in the hands and wrists with destruction of bone around the involved jointsz
Rheumatoid arthritis is officially diagnosed when four or more of these factors are present – the first four must have been present for at least six weeks.
Tests and Treatment Options
Arthritis treatments usually focus on reducing the symptoms, as there is not an exact cure for the different types of arthritis, including rheumatoid. The main goals of the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis is:
- Reduce inflammation and prevent further joint damage
- Relieve symptoms, including arthritis pain
Treatment of rheumatoid usually involves a combination of medications, occupational or physical therapy and regular exercise. Sometimes surgery may be used if joint damage has occurred.
Medications for rheumatoid arthritis include disease modifying antirheumatic drugs, which are the current standard. Anti-inflammatory medications may also be prescribed, including aspirin and nonsteroidal drugs such as ibuprofen.
Helpful Tips and Home Remedies
It may not be possible to prevent rheumatoid arthritis, but it is possible to prevent further joint damage with an early diagnosis and proper treatment.
- Quit smoking – the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis is nearly double for smokers, when compared to non-smokers
- Get regular eye exams – rheumatoid arthritis can cause eye complications
There are also some natural treatments for rheumatoid arthritis that can range from magnets, massage, herbs and supplements, relaxation and moist heat.