Arthritis by definition is a group of conditions involving damage to the joints of the body. It is a general term to describe inflammation of the joints, characterized by redness, warmth, swelling, and pain within the joint. As many of 100 medical conditions have symptoms of arthritis.
While rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a type of chronic arthritis which typically occurs symmetrically, in the joints of both sides of the body. The cause is still unclear; so far it is considered an auto-immune disorder, where someone’s own immune system attacks their own body.
During disease activity, infection-fighting cells (white blood cells) are mistakenly allowed into the joint. No one understands why this happens, but it’s clear the white blood cells don’t belong there.
Inside the joint, these white blood cells produce chemicals that they usually use to kill invading microorganisms — only no microorganisms are there. Instead, the chemicals damage the healthy joint tissue. During high levels of disease activity, you experience a flare — joints become swollen, stiff, and painful. You can also have low levels of disease activity that come and go without your feeling any symptoms.
In addition to affecting the joints, rheumatoid arthritis may occasionally affect the skin, eyes, lungs, heart, blood, or nerves.
It is estimated to attack 3 in 10,000 people worldwide. Although it might seem to be a rare disease, many studies have been made for the advancement of treatment since it significantly decreases one’s quality of life. Daily living activities are impaired in most people with RA. After 5 years of disease, approximately 33% of patients are unable to work. Life expectancy in patients with RA is shortened by 5-10 years.
The diagnosis is based on history of symptoms and blood test. Many centres have developed a diagnostic criteria, one of the most commonly used is from the American College of Rheumatology. Some of the symptoms included in the criteria area: morning stiffness in and around the joints which lasts at least 1 hour before maximal improvement, arthritis of 3 or more joints, arthritis of the hand joints, symmetric arthritis, a positive blood test of RA, changes on an x-ray examination, etc.
Once examination is performed and diagnosis is made, your doctor or more specifically a rheumatologist will decide the treatment. The main treatment goals with rheumatoid arthritis are to control inflammation and slow or stop progression of RA.
Treatment is usually a multi-faceted program of medications, occupational or physical therapy, and regular exercise. Sometimes surgery is used to correct joint damage. Early, aggressive treatment is key to good results. And with today’s treatments, joint damage can be slowed or stopped in many cases.
Because treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is improving, many experts believe that most people who have it today will develop less joint damage than ever before. You can gain control of rheumatoid arthritis and improve your chances. Here are some advices to prevent worsening joint damage.
- Get treated early. Much of the joint damage that eventually becomes serious starts soon after rheumatoid arthritis is discovered. The earlier you are treated, the less the chance of joint damage.
- Get treatment often. People who see their rheumatologist regularly (several times a year) have less joint damage than people who do not.
- Exercise! You can exercise without causing joint damage. In fact, just the opposite is true — regular exercise makes joints stronger. Your doctor will help you with an exercise plan that is safe, effective, and personalized for your fitness level and condition.
- Rest when you need to. Finding the balance between rest and exercise is important so you don’t overdo it.
- Use a cane in the opposite hand from a painful hip or knee. This reduces wear-and-tear on the affected joint.