Rheumatoid Arthritis 101 – Part 1

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that results in chronic inflammation and pain in the smaller joints, such as those in your feet and hands. It differs from the more common osteoarthritis in that rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t come from wear and tear on the joints but instead affects the synovial lining of the joints so that they swell and become inflamed. Eventually, the cartilage wears away and you end up with bony erosion of the joints and severe joint deformity.
As an autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis happens when the immune system attacks the tissues of the body, in this case, the tissues within your joints. Some people with rheumatoid arthritis develop symptoms in other body areas when the autoantibodies affect the eyes, blood vessels, skin, and lungs.
Rheumatoid arthritis has been known to affect children but it is usually a disease-affecting people older than 40 years of age. Like all autoimmune disorders, the disease is more common in women than it is in men. Treatment, as you will see later, is focused on reducing your symptoms and preventing further damage to your joints.

Signs And Symptoms Of Rheumatoid Arthritis

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, these are some things you can expect:

  • Joint stiffness that is usually worse in the morning but can last for several hours throughout the day
  • Joints that are tender to the touch, warm, sometimes reddened and swollen. As mentioned, this usually involves the smaller joints of the body.
  • Lumps of tissue beneath the skin near the joints. These are called rheumatoid nodules and may or may not be painful to the touch.
  • Weight loss, fever, and fatigue. These are the natural effects of autoantibodies in the body tissues.
  • Swollen PIP joints. These joints connect the hands to the fingers. Eventually, the joints of the feet are affected as well. Wrists, ankles, elbows, shoulders, and hips will eventually become affected by this disease. The disease is usually bilateral, meaning that they affect both sides of the body at the same time.

You may have steady symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis or may have symptoms that come and go. Rheumatoid arthritis is characterized by flares of increased joint inflammation with periods of time where the joints are less affected. The longer you have rheumatoid arthritis, the more likely it is that you will have joint deformities that do not go away.

Causes Of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means that your body has made antibodies in the immune system that attack the tissues that line the joints. The synovium or joint lining becomes inflamed and thickened. Eventually, the cartilage becomes destroyed, leaving bone to rub on bone. In the most severe cases, the bone itself will erode as well.
The ligaments and tendons that connect the joints to other tissues will stretch out and weaken so that the joint itself begins to become deformed. Exactly how this autoimmune process works is not clear. There may be both environmental and genetic factors playing into who gets rheumatoid arthritis and who doesn’t. It’s possible that genetics interacts with environmental things like infections to result in the disease.

Risk Factors For Rheumatoid Arthritis

There are certain factors in your life that may make it more likely that you’ll get the disease. These include the following:

  • Family history. If a parent or sibling has rheumatoid arthritis, this may put you at an increased risk of getting the disease.
  • If you are female, you have a greater chance of getting the disease.
  • While it can occur in a person of any age, most people are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis between 40 and 60 years of age.

Complications Of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis isn’t just a disease of the joints. There are several complications of the disease that you should be aware of. These include the following:

  • Lung disease. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you stand a greater chance of also having scarring and inflammation of your lungs, which can cause you to feel short of breath.
  • You can get thinning of your bones just because you have rheumatoid arthritis. Alternatively, some of the medications used to treat the disease can cause weakened bones.
  • Heart problems. People with rheumatoid arthritis have a greater chance of having blocked arteries in the heart and an increased chance of pericardial sac inflammation.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome. If you have rheumatoid arthritis in the wrist area, it can compress the carpal tunnel, which houses the median nerve. This can result in tingling and numbness of your hands and fingers.

Learn about tests and treatments for rheumatoid arthritis in our post next Saturday.

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