What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease that affects the joints. The disease often worsens over time and affects the patient’s basic level of function significantly. The disease is autoimmune, which means that the immune system attacks the body’s own cells - it reacts to naturally occurring substances in the body as if they were dangerous. The autoimmune reaction causes the body to form antibodies in the tissue surrounding the joints, resulting in inflammation of the joints. Whereas osteoarthritis is caused by breakdown of joint cartilage, rheumatoid arthritis is caused by a breakdown of cells that line the joints; a breakdown triggered by the immune system’s attacks. The breakdown of these cells causes painful swelling, and over time, the cartilage and bones might be damaged as well. In addition, deformation of the joints might occur, and the inflamed joints could end up being permanently damaged.
What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis affects several parts of the body and will thus cause symptoms from different organs. First of all, the inflammation commonly occurs in the body’s joints, often symmetrically, so that the same joints in both arms will be inflamed at the same time. Often, the joints in hands and feet will be affected, but generally, any joint might be affected.
You may experience:
· Feeling stiff in the morning
· Joint pain
Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease, which means that it affects multiple parts of the body. Because of this, more organs are vulnerable when you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. You may therefore experience:
· Varying degrees of fatigue and a lack of energy
· Loss of appetite and weight loss
In rare cases, rheumatoid arthritis might cause pneumonia and cardiovascular diseases like arteriosclerosis.
The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are physically limiting for the patient, thus reducing his/her possibilities significantly – both in terms of professional qualifications, leisure time activities and everyday activities.
Symptoms will often come and go. Sometimes they are mild, and other times they are severe and extremely painful. When a patient experiences a flare, he/she will feel very unwell. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict a flare.
How is the course of the disease?
In most cases, the development of rheumatoid arthritis is insidious. The first symptoms often develop gradually over several weeks or months. At first, the patient will feel stiffness and pain in at least one joint when trying to move it. In addition, the joint will often feel sore.
The first symptoms often occur in the small joints in hands and feet. Often at least five joints will be affected, and typically rheumatoid arthritis affects both sides of the body at the same time and to the same extent. The disease is 2-3 times more common in women than in men, and it often develops in people aged 40-60, but it might occur at all ages.
What causes rheumatoid arthritis?
The cause of the autoimmune attacks is still unknown, but evidence indicates that people with a family history of rheumatoid arthritis and people who smoke have a higher risk of developing the disease.
For some unknown reason, the immune system starts attacking the linings of the joints, causing inflammation, which can cause the cartilage and bones to break down.
How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?
Even though rheumatoid arthritis cannot be cured, an early diagnosis and early treatment is important to prevent or slow joint damage. The goal of the treatment is to reduce inflammation, alleviate pain and minimise potential disabilities caused by pain, joint damage or deformations, and to either stop or slow joint damage.
This can be done using medication that suppress the inflammation without steroids, corticosteroids, medications to suppress the hyperactive immune system etc. In addition, advice from a physiotherapist on how to reduce the strain on vulnerable joints is beneficial. If this proves insufficient, an operation might be necessary.
Additionally, a lifestyle change is often necessary. When you have rheumatoid arthritis, it is important to listen to your body. When you experience a flare, it is recommended that you get plenty of rest, and when the symptoms are mild, it is beneficial to exercise regularly to improve your overall health and to increase your mobility.
Smokers have a much higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, smoking aggravates the disease, and it is therefore recommended to quit smoking.