Rheumatoid Arthritis Can Be Treated
What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that typically affects the small joints in your hands and feet. Unlike the wear-and-tear damage of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of your joints, causing a painful swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.
An autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body's tissues. In addition to causing joint problems, rheumatoid arthritis can also affect your whole body with fevers and fatigue.
Rheumatoid arthritis is much more common in women than in men and generally occurs between the ages of 40 and 60. Treatment focuses on controlling symptoms and preventing joint damage.
Signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include:
Tender, warm, swollen joints
Morning stiffness that may last for hours
Firm bumps of tissue under the skin on your arms (rheumatoid nodules)
Fatigue, fever and weight loss
Early rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect your smaller joints first, particularly the joints that attach your fingers to your hands and your toes to your feet. As the disease progresses, symptoms often spread to the knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders. In most cases, symptoms occur in the same joints on both sides of your body.
Rheumatoid arthritis signs and symptoms may vary in severity and may even come and go. Periods of increased disease activity, called flares, alternate with periods of relative remission, when the swelling and pain fade or disappear. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joints to deform and shift out of place.
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system attacks the synovium, the lining of the membranes that surround your joints. The resulting inflammation thickens the synovium, which can eventually invade and destroy the cartilage and bone within the joint. The tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together weaken and stretch. Gradually, the joint loses its shape and alignment.
Doctors do not know what starts this process, although a genetic component appears likely. While your genes do not actually cause rheumatoid arthritis, they can make you more susceptible to environmental factors, such as infection with certain viruses and bacteria, that may trigger the disease.
Medications can reduce inflammation in your joints in order to relieve pain and prevent or slow joint damage. Occupational and physical therapy can teach you how to protect your joints. If your joints are severely damaged by rheumatoid arthritis, surgery may be necessary.
Many drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis have potentially serious side effects. Doctors typically prescribe medications with the fewest side effects first. You may need stronger drugs or a combination of drugs as your disease progresses.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Over the counter NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) and naproxen (Aleve). Stronger NSAIDs are available by prescription. Side effects may include ringing in your ears, stomach irritation, heart problems and liver and kidney damage.Steroids. Corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, reduce inflammation and pain and slow joint damage. Side effects may include thinning of bones, cataracts, weight gain and diabetes. Doctors often prescribe a corticosteroid to relieve acute symptoms, with the goal of gradually tapering off the medication.Disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). These drugs can slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and save the joints and other tissues from permanent damage. Common DMARDs include methotrexate (Trexall), leflunomide (Arava), hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), sulfasalazine (Azulfidine) and minocycline (Dynacin, Minocin, others). Side effects vary but may include liver damage, bone marrow suppression and severe lung infections.Immunosuppressants. These medications act to tame your immune system, which is out of control in rheumatoid arthritis. Examples include azathioprine (Imuran, Azasan), cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune, Gengraf) and cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan). These medications can increase your susceptibility to infection.TNF alpha inhibitors. Tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF alpha) is an inflammatory substance produced by your body. TNF-alpha inhibitors can help reduce pain, morning stiffness, and tender or swollen joints. Examples include etanercept (Enbrel), infliximab (Remicade), adalimumab (Humira), golimumab (Simponi) and certolizumab (Cimzia). Potential side effects include increased risk of serious infections, congestive heart failure and certain cancers.Other drugs. Several other rheumatoid arthritis drugs target a variety of processes involved with inflammation in your body. These drugs include anakinra (Kineret), abatacept (Orencia), rituximab (Rituxan) and tocilizumab (Actemra). Side effects vary but may include itching, severe abdominal pain, headache, runny nose or sore throat.
Your doctor may send you to a therapist who can teach you exercises to help keep your joints flexible. The therapist may also suggest new ways to do daily tasks, which will be easier on your joints. For example, if your fingers are sore, you may want to pick up an object using your forearms.
Assistive devices can make it easier to avoid stressing your painful joints. For instance, using specially designed gripping and grabbing tools may make it easier to work in the kitchen if you have pain in your fingers. Try a cane to help you get around. Catalogs and medical supply stores also may be places to look for ideas.