As an autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis is both painful and difficult to diagnose, especially during the early stages. Part of the problem is that various other diseases, such as lupus and fibromyalgia, can be mistaken for rheumatoid arthritis and are difficult to diagnose themselves. The right diagnosis is critical for developing the best long-term treatment plan for any autoimmune disease. Like other diseases in this group, rheumatoid arthritis can be successfully managed, but it doesn’t have a cure.
Approximately 1.3 million Americans have rheumatoid arthritis, and about 75% of them are women. However, anyone could develop the disease, but some people do have certain risk factors that put them at greater risk than others. Additionally, the disease can attack critical organs and not just the joints. It’s important to learn the signs and symptoms that could warn you of the disease, so treatment can begin early.
What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Like other forms of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis mainly attacks the joints in the hands, wrists, elbows, knees, ankles and feet. In some cases, the disease causes damage to the heart, lungs, blood vessels, eyes and skin. It is a type of autoimmune disease, which is a class of diseases caused by the body’s immune system attacking its own organs and cells. Because of the potential damage to organ systems throughout the body, rheumatoid arthritis is also classified as a systemic disease.
When joints are attacked, the disease causes inflammation that could lead to permanent damage. In many cases, the joints become twisted and deformed. Reliable treatment can help you manage the disease and slow the progression.
Who Is at Risk of Developing Rheumatoid Arthritis?
According to the Mayo Clinic, some people have an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. It’s more common for people to start showing symptoms between the ages of 40 and 60, and the disease is far more prominent in women than men. If you have a family history of rheumatoid arthritis, your risk of developing it increases. Smoking not only increases your risk, but it can also increase the severity of your symptoms if you already have it. Obesity is also a risk factor.
Certain environmental factors can increase your likelihood of developing rheumatoid arthritis, although researchers don’t yet understand why this is true. People who were in the area after the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, have a higher risk of developing the disease. This is also true for anyone who has been exposed to asbestos and silica on job sites.
The first symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may be mild and only affect smaller joints, such as those in your hands and feet. Inflammation caused by the disease usually causes pain, swelling, tenderness and stiffness. As the condition progresses, these discomforts eventually spread to larger joints, such as your hips, wrists, shoulders, knees and elbows, with more painful results.
Because early symptoms could also be signs of other much more common health issues, it’s challenging for doctors to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis based solely on the symptoms. Besides obvious pain and swelling in the joints, another key sign to watch for is stiffness that remains for more than 30 minutes after waking up in the morning. Interestingly, rheumatoid arthritis also has a symmetrical component, with the same joints affected on both sides of the body. You may also notice that symptoms get worse (flare) for a while and then subside for a time (remission).
According to the Mayo Clinic, around 40% of people with rheumatoid arthritis have symptoms that aren’t related to the joints at all. In the early stages of the disease, you may experience fatigue, weight loss and fever, leading you to think you have the flu. As the disease progresses, you could experience a range of eye problems, such as dryness, sensitivity to light and vision problems. Other symptoms include dry mouth, nodules under the skin, shortness of breath, nerve pain and anemia.
Non-Medical Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis
During the early stages of the disease, your doctor may only prescribe lifestyle changes to help with any mild symptoms you might be experiencing. This includes changing your diet to include plenty of foods with built-in anti-inflammatory characteristics, such as nuts and tomatoes, and foods that are high in antioxidants, such as berries. A healthy diet will also help you maintain a healthy weight, which is another natural way to improve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Your doctor may also suggest learning yoga or engaging in some other type of low-impact exercise. In many areas, community groups offer exercise programs that are specifically designed for people with arthritis. Getting plenty of sleep is also important, and applying heat and cold to the affected joints is still a proven remedy for pain relief.
Medical Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis
If your rheumatoid arthritis can’t be controlled through lifestyle changes, you may need medication, physical therapy or even surgery. According to the Mayo Clinic, medications may include over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium as well as prescription disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, steroids and biologic response modifiers.
Many people with rheumatoid arthritis also require physical or occupational therapy to learn exercises that can help them improve joint flexibility. When medication and therapy don’t alleviate the pain and slow the progression, surgery may be the only option that makes sense. Surgical options range from less invasive procedures to remove inflamed linings around joints or repair tendons to more comprehensive total joint replacements.