Did you know that about 1 percent of the population is affected by the chronic inflammatory disorder rheumatoid arthritis?
As a rheumatologist, rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most common patient conditions I see in my practice and is more common among women than men.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder in which your immune system attacks your joints. When this happens inflammatory cells migrate to your joints, which causes painful swelling and in some people fever and, rarely, other symptoms such as anemia, rashes, or lung problems. As the disease progresses, it causes an erosion of the bones in the affected joints as well as joint deformity.
In the past, many people living with this condition suffered severe destruction of their joints to the point that their hands may have appeared seriously deformed. The painter Renoir struggled with this painful condition and toward the end of his career resorted to taping his paint brushes to his arms so that he could continue to work. While there is no cure for this condition, the good news is that early intervention and treatment can help prevent or slow destruction of your joints.
How do you know if you might be in the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis?
You may have swelling and redness over your joints, especially in the hands, including the middle knuckles and wrists, although it can be present in any joint. Some people experience stiffness in these joints when they wake up in the morning, which improves with activity. This is in contrast to other forms of arthritis, which tend to get worse with activity. The discomfort and pain from rheumatoid arthritis can be severe and felt in most areas of your body other than the back. Other symptoms may include fatigue, fever or weight loss. If you experience ongoing pain and swelling in your joints you should make an appointment with a rheumatologist.
Rheumatoid arthritis prevention and treatment
The American College of Rheumatology released new criteria for diagnosis in 2010 that aims to help catch the condition earlier than previously possible. When you meet with a rheumatologist he/she will consider swelling and tenderness in your joints as well as looking at the results from a blood test. The goal of testing is to confirm a diagnosis before you begin to experience joint destruction. Once you have a diagnosis, treatment can help lessen both the symptoms and progression of the disease.
We do not know what causes rheumatoid arthritis, but we do know that there are certain genes that make you more prone to developing it. However, not everyone with these genes ends up with the disease. For example, if an identical twin has rheumatoid arthritis, the other twin only has a 15 percent chance of developing it (American College of Rheumatology). Smoking increases your susceptibility of getting rheumatoid arthritis and is the only known modifiable risk factor.
Once you are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, your rheumatologist will work with you to manage the pain of the condition, and slow the progression of joint destruction through the use of various medications. There are a number of proven medications that have been used as well as any number of new medications that could be the right fit for your individual symptoms.
Surgery may be an option for people who have significant joint destruction or those who have other severe symptoms such as bumps under the skin called rheumatoid nodules. While surgery cannot completely alleviate symptoms, in most cases it can help improve your joint mobility and decrease pain.
If you think you may have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, you should make an appointment for a complete evaluation with a rheumatologist. This can rule out other conditions that may mimic the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, including certain viral infections and other types of inflammatory arthritis. Although there is no guaranteed way to prevent rheumatoid arthritis, in most cases we can control the disease and prevent joint destruction. Joints can begin to break down within one year of the onset, so early intervention when you begin to notice swelling in your joints is critical to the long-term management of the disease.
For more information please call us at 603-658-1306.