What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis and How Is It Treated?
Rheumatoid arthritis, unlike osteoarthritis, is actually an autoimmune disease. This means that the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the body. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, or RA the immune system attacks the joints. Experts are not sure why this happens.
Though doctors don’t really know specific rheumatoid arthritis causes, the disease usually strikes people in early middle age. Like many other autoimmune diseases, it is much more common in women than in men. Some people with RA also have a family history of the condition.
Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms are warmth, pain and stiffness in the affected joints. The stiffness is especially bad in the morning and may take hours to improve. This is much like the symptoms of osteoarthritis, though RA affects the lining around the joints as opposed to the cartilage, which is worn down in osteoarthritis. RA can also attack other areas of the body. Therefore, people with RA not only feel pain in their joints, but they may also be anemic, feverish and fatigued. Some people suffer inflammation around their heart, kidneys and lungs. Patients may also develop small bumps called rheumatoid nodules under their skin.
Though it strikes the smaller bones in the fingers and toes at first, RA can spread to larger joints such as those in the knees and the hips. The disease also tends to strike joints on both sides of the body. After a time, joints can become deformed.
RA symptoms also tend to come and go, with remissions punctuated by flare-ups of rheumatoid arthritis pain, swelling and stiffness.
Because the early stages of RA resemble so many other diseases, it can be difficult to diagnose it. Though there’s no specific blood test that diagnoses RA, people with RA tend to have an elevated sed rate. This is the rate at which red blood cells sediment out of whole blood, leaving them at the bottom of a test tube with clear yellow plasma at the top. A high sed rate is an indicator of inflammation.
Rheumatoid arthritis treatment is aimed at easing symptoms, because there is as yet no cure for RA. Rheumatoid arthritis medication can ease the pain of the condition and slow down the destruction of bone and cartilage. These drugs include NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. These can be bought over the counter, though a doctor can prescribe them for severe pain.
A doctor can also prescribe corticosteroids to treat pain and inflammation, though side effects such as thinning of the bones are worrisome enough to preclude a patient staying on corticosteroids for the rest of their life. Other drugs are DMARDs, or disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs. These drugs protect the joints from damage that is severe and permanent. Biological DMARDs such as etanercept, golimumab, infliximab, rituximab and tocilizumab actually treat those parts of the immune system that set up the inflammation in the joints. These biological DMARDs work best when used with non-biological DMARDs.
Physical therapy also teaches a patient ow to protect their joints and how to best use their joints despite any damage done to them by RA.