Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory disease, often chronic, that adversely affects joints and, sometimes, other parts of the body. RA is an autoimmune disorder, meaning the immune system, the body's defense against foreign bacteria and viruses, attacks healthy tissue for unknown reasons. In the case of RA, it attacks structures related to the mechanism of joints - usually cartilage or a lining of tissue in the joint known as synovium.

Unlike other forms of arthritis, RA seems to affect the body in a symmetrical fashion. If one extremity joint is affected - such as the wrist or knee - the companion joint will also usually be affected. It can affect other parts of the body besides joints, including the heart, lungs and blood vessels.

Patients with RA usually have painful, swollen and inflamed joints that are tender to the touch. Pain and stiffness is especially acute in the morning or after a prolonged rest. Patients can also feel a general sense of malaise and fatigue, and will occasionally run a fever.

These symptoms are not always universal or constant. Some patients with RA may experience just a few of these symptoms, and for a short period of time, sometimes only a few months. Others, with more severe forms of the disease, may experience symptoms constantly for a lifetime and suffer from significant joint damage.

The disease is also prone to what doctors call "flaring." The disease may occur mildly in some people for a period of time, then "flare" up with a period of worsening symptoms, that may later abate into a period of remission.

What causes RA? Researchers don't know exactly, but they have detected some similarities in RA patients. For example, researchers have discovered some genes related to the immune system aren't present in many people with RA.

Although the absence of these genes isn't a universal finding, many scientists believe it may be one of a series of factors involved in the disease. Some believe that people with a genetic disposition toward RA encounter an environmental trigger, like a bacterial infection, that initiates the autoimmune reaction. Some speculate that hormones may also play a role in the development of the disease.

Common Treatments:

There are several treatment options and approaches for RA, depending on symptoms and severity. Rheumatologists, physicians that specialize in arthritic or rheumatic conditions, work with RA patients to develop a tailored plan that reduces pain and inflammation, stops or impedes joint damage and improves their quality of life.

For most patients, the presence of RA calls for comprehensive changes in behavior and lifestyle. Rest, exercise, joint care and a healthy diet all play a vital role in alleviating the effects and damage of the disease. Even a change of scenery may be a part of the plan - some patients are less affected by RA in milder climates.

Medication also plays a significant role in most treatment strategies. Physicians typically prescribe anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) that retard the course of the disease. They may also prescribe powerful, prescription-based pain relievers, even early in the treatment of RA. Studies have shown that taking an aggressive approach at the onset of the disease may reduce future joint damage.

Sometimes surgery is a viable treatment option, though certainly not for every RA patient. Surgical options include replacement of a damaged joint, the removal of affected synovial tissue, or reconstruction of damaged tendons.

Online reference: offers educational and motivational information for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
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