Rheumatoid Arthritis

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that affects joints and other parts of the body. Unlike osteoarthritis, in which wear and tear gradually damages the cartilage cushions that protect joints, RA is caused by immune system dysfunction.

Normally, the immune system seeks out and destroys disease-causing substances such as viruses or bacteria. With RA, however, the immune system attacks the body’s own cells by mistake. The immune system antibodies associated with RA cause widespread damage to healthy tissues and a variety of symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

The key defining features of RA are inflammation, pain and swelling in and around many joints. Inflammation of blood vessels that can lead to damage in the nerves, skin and other organs.

In addition, RA increases the risk of developing several serious complications including osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, lymphoma, kidney disease, Sjogren's syndrome and skin cancer.

Unlike some other forms of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis affects joints on both sides of the body — for example, both hands or both knees. Symptoms typically flare up, improve, then flare again. Early signs of RA may include:

  • Fatigue low grade fever painful
  • Tender, swollen joints, which may feel warm or look red stiffness in the joints

What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

The precise cause of RA is unclear. A combination of heredity, hormones and environmental factors may contribute. The risk is of developing RA is higher for women, people middle age or older, people with a family member with the condition, people who are overweight or obese, and smokers.

How Is Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosed?

Diagnosing RA requires a combination of approaches, beginning with a physical examination and review of symptoms. Blood tests can detect the presence of rheumatoid factor (RF) and other RA-related antibodies, as well as several indicators of inflammation. Imaging studies such as X-rays, ultrasound and MRI may be used to look for evidence of inflammation and joint damage.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatments

Currently, there is no cure for RA. The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms, maximize joint function and overall health, and prevent future joint and organ damage.

Lifestyle habits such as staying physically active can improve RA symptoms as well as overall health. Low impact exercise such as swimming, water aerobics or bicycling are some of the best joint-friendly activities. Following an anti-inflammatory diet may also help.

Medications for RA depend on the stage of the disease and symptom severity. According to the American College of Rheumatology, the preferred treatment for RA is a class of medications called anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDS). One of the newest options is Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors that block cell signals that lead to inflammation and immune responses.

In addition, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help relieve RA pain, while corticosteroids such as prednisone reduce inflammation. In severe or persistent cases of RA, biological agents that suppress specific immune system activities can help interrupt the inflammation process and stop joint damage.

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