Rheumatoid Arthritis

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease of the joints. This is caused by an autoimmune reaction, which means that the immune system mistakenly forms antibodies (proteins which fight infections) and begins to attack the body tissues. Women are affected more commonly than men, and most people are diagnosed between 35 and 50 years age. The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are pain and swelling in the joins, especially the small joints in the hands and feet. Rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed by the symptoms, physical examination and a blood test. Rheumatoid arthritis is managed with pain medication and medications to slow down the immune system, but there is no specific cure for this condition. Rheumatoid arthritis usually gets slowly worse over time, and can cause significant joint damage. Early treatment can help prevent some joint damage.

Risks

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition, which means that the immune system mistakenly forms antibodies (proteins which fight infections) and begins to attack the body tissues. The reason why this occurs in rheumatoid arthritis is not well understood. This eventually causes damage to the cartilage and bones inside the joint, and can cause joints to become deformed and not able to move normally. It is probable that multiple factors interact to cause rheumatoid arthritis. Women are affected more commonly than men, and most people are diagnosed between 35 and 50 years age.

Symptoms

The typical symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are pain, swelling and stiffness in multiple joints. The joints of the hands and feet are commonly affected, but rheumatoid arthritis can affect any joint. Joint stiffness might be worse in the morning, and improve over the course of the day. Other symptoms include tiredness, weight loss and fever. Many people will have symptoms that are sometimes much worse than other times. The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis come on gradually and become worse over time. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect other parts of the body, such as the skin, lungs and heart.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is based on the symptoms, the physical examination and a blood test for autoantibodies (signs that the immune system is attacking the body) and general signs of inflammation. X-rays or a computer tomography (CT) scan of the joints are helpful in assessing the joint damage caused by this condition.

Treatment

The treatment of rheumatoid arthritis aims to slow down the overactive immune system. These medications, known as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDS), help to reduce symptoms, prevent joint damage and prevent immune response against other parts of the body (for example, the skin and heart). Anti-inflammatory medications (for example, ibuprofen and aspirin) can be helpful for treating episodes of pain. Several treatment methods should be combined. Staying physically active may be helpful in maintaining normal movement in the joints. Joint replacement might be needed in cases of severe joint damage.

Other names for rheumatoid arthritis

  • Polyarthritis rheumatica