The primary job of the immune system is to attack foreign substances such as viruses and bacteria. When you have the autoimmune disease of rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system attacks your joints instead of protecting them as it normally would. Because of this, the tissue that lines the inside of your joints called synovium thickens and creates pain and inflammation. Normally, it would help to lubricate the joints so you can move freely without pain.
How Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects You Over Time
When you deal with inflammation for a long time without any treatment, it can damage the cartilage of your bones. The cartilage is elastic-like tissue that covers bones and joints. When the effects of rheumatoid arthritis go unchecked, the normal joint spacing between bones becomes smaller. In addition to causing pain in the joints, the shrinking of this space can also lead to loose and unstable joints that you may have trouble controlling voluntarily.
The most common areas of the body affected by rheumatoid arthritis include the ankles, elbows, feet, hands, knees, and wrists. The disease is symmetrical, which means it typically affects both the right and left body part at the same time. It is also important to realize that rheumatoid arthritis can affect respiratory, cardiovascular, or other body systems. This makes it a systemic disease, which means that it affects your entire body.
Joint deformity is another common issue with untreated rheumatoid arthritis.
Unfortunately, damage to the joints is not reversible. This is the reason we recommend early diagnosis and aggressive treatment at UHC Rheumatology. While this disease is incurable, it is possible to treat it and manage the symptoms.
Demographics of Rheumatoid Arthritis in the United States
Approximately 1.5 million people have rheumatoid arthritis in this country, with women receiving a diagnosis three times as often as men do. The typical age of onset for women is between 30 and 60 years old. Men tend to develop joint pain and other common symptoms past middle age. Although the risk of developing the disease increases if a family member has it, most people who receive a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis have no family history at all.
What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?
The most well-known cause of this painful condition is the immune system attacking the joints. However, medical researchers are not entirely sure why this happens. Current theories include environmental factors, faulty hormones, and genetic mutations. Specifically, people with a genetic marker called HLA have a five-fold increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. This gene controls the body’s immune response, so it makes sense that any abnormality could increase the probability of pain, inflammation, and other symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Early Indications You Could Have Rheumatoid Arthritis
The earlier you realize that you could have rheumatoid arthritis and seek a diagnosis, the better your disease outcome will be. The problem many people have in the early stages is that the symptoms of this autoimmune disease can mimic several others. However, knowing the signs and symptoms could save you months or even years of frustration of not knowing what the problem is or how to make it better. The following symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are most common in the early stages:
- Anemia: The inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis causes your body’s bone marrow to decrease the amount of red blood cells it releases into the bloodstream. The lowered red blood cell count is what leads to anemia.
- Fatigue: Although common in all stages of this disease, fatigue is especially prominent when your immune system first starts attacking your joints. The fatigue also tends to be most prevalent during active joint inflammation. Some of the most common causes of fatigue with rheumatoid arthritis include anemia, inflammation, medication reaction, and poor sleep due to pain.
- Fever: A low grade fever can occur during flare-ups of the disease, although this is not common. Additionally, taking medications to help control symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can weaken the immune system and make it more difficult to fight off a fever.
- Joint deformity: Long-term rheumatoid arthritis can cause deformity of the joints when untreated inflammation causes erosion of cartilage and bone as well as loosening of the ligaments. Early detection and treatment of this disease can prevent joint deformity in many cases.
- Joint tenderness: This problem occurs because tissue lining your joints has become inflamed and subsequently irritated nerves in the capsule of your joints. Simply touching the affected joints can cause pressure and pain, leading to poor sleep and therefore fatigue.
- Joint pain: The inflammation caused by this autoimmune disease can affect the joint itself as well as the bursae, ligaments, or tendons surrounding it.
- Joint redness: You may notice that the bends in your fingers or toes appear red. This happens when the capillaries inside of your joints widen in response to inflammation.
- Joint stiffness: Due to inflammation, it is common for your joints to feel the stiffest when you wake up in the morning and to gradually loosen up throughout the day. The duration of morning joint stiffness is one way that doctors monitor severity during a bout of active joint inflammation.
- Joint swelling: Swelling of the joints due to rheumatoid arthritis can make it difficult to put on and take off rings as well as cause a possible range of motion loss.
- Joint warmth: If your joints feel warm to the touch, it is a sign of active inflammation. This is one of the first things doctors look for as they monitor the disease. This can occur with or without redness or swelling of joints.
- Limping: Inflammation of the ankles, feet, hips, or knees can cause you to limp due to the pain. Joint swelling and range of motion loss can cause this problem as well.
- Loss of joint function: The pain, swelling, and tenderness of rheumatoid arthritis frequently lead to joint function loss. This results in stability and range of motion problems, which causes additional issues with balance, completeness, and confidence. Loss of grip and dexterity, lack of coordination, limping, and significant disability are the predictable outcomes.
- Loss of joint range of motion: Problems with range of motion become more pronounced as the swelling taking place inside of your joints worsens over time. The range of motion loss may become permanent for joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis over a period of many years.
- Polyarthritis (many joints affected): It’s common with rheumatoid arthritis to have pain, swelling, and inflammation in many areas at the same time. The joints most commonly affected include the small joints of the balls of the feet, hands, and wrists. Other areas where the disease may strike include the ankles, elbows, hips, and shoulders. Doctors refer to the condition as polyarthritis when you experience symptoms in four or more joints.
- Symmetrical (both sides of the body): When the inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis strikes, it typically occurs in hands, feet, knees, or other body part at the same time.
Self-Care Options for Rheumatoid Arthritis Sufferers
Taking a proactive approach to managing your symptoms helps to improve your quality of life. One of the most important things you can do is choose foods not known to cause inflammation. Certain foods have a natural anti-inflammatory effect, including fish, fruits, olive oil, and vegetables. Processed foods and those purchased from a fast food restaurant have the opposite impact. Some other things you can do to care for yourself include:
- Rest when you experience periods of high inflammation
- Get plenty of physical activity, particularly low-impact aerobics, flexibility, and strength training. You may want to meet with a physical therapist familiar with rheumatoid arthritis to help establish an exercise plan.
- Alternate cold and hot therapies: Warm baths, heating pads, and other hot therapies can reduce joint stiffness and fatigued muscles. Cold therapy helps to reduce inflammation and pain.
- Alternative therapies: Some disease sufferers find relief with alternative therapies such as massage, guided imagery, and deep breathing.
- Supplements: Taking vitamin supplements, especially omega-3 fish oil, can reduce morning stiffness and all-day pain.
- Support network: Maintaining a network of supportive people means that you have emotional support when you need it. Keeping a positive attitude is helpful as well.
Of course, it’s important to be under a doctor’s care as well when dealing with this disease.
We encourage you to call 681-342-3490 to request an appointment with your regular doctor at United Hospital Center or to request a referral to a rheumatologist.
Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing related symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.