Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a form of arthritis that causes pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of function in your joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a form of arthritis that causes pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of function in your joints. It can affect any joint but is common in the wrist and fingers.

More women than men get rheumatoid arthritis. It often starts in middle age and is most common in older people. You might have the disease for only a short time, or symptoms might come and go. The severe form can last a lifetime.

Rheumatoid arthritis is different from osteoarthritis, the common arthritis that often comes with older age. RA can affect body parts besides joints, such as your eyes, mouth and lungs. RA is an autoimmune disease, which means the arthritis results from your immune system attacking your body's own tissues.

No one knows what causes rheumatoid arthritis. Genes, environment, and hormones might contribute. Treatments include medicine, lifestyle changes, and surgery. These can slow or stop joint damage and reduce pain and swelling.

There is no known prevention. Smoking cigarettes appears to worsen RA, so it is important to avoid tobacco. Proper early treatment can help prevent further joint damage.

The cause of RA is unknown. It is an autoimmune disease. This means the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.

RA can occur at any age, but is more common in middle age. Women get RA more often than men.

Infection, genes, and hormone changes may be linked to the disease. Smoking may also be linked to RA.

It is much less common than osteoarthritis, which is a condition that occurs in many people due to wear and tear on the joints as they age.

Most of the time, RA affects joints on both sides of the body equally. Wrists, fingers, knees, feet, and ankles are the most commonly affected.

The disease often begins slowly. Early symptoms may include minor joint pain, stiffness, and fatigue.

Joint symptoms may include:

Morning stiffness, which lasts more than 1 hour, is common. Joints may feel warm, tender, and stiff when not used for an hour.
Joint pain is often felt in the same joint on both sides of the body. The joints are often swollen.
Over time, joints may lose their range of motion and may become deformed.

Other symptoms include:

  • Chest pain when taking a breath (pleurisy)
  • Dry eyes and mouth (Sjogren syndrome)
  • Eye burning, itching, and discharge
  • Nodules under the skin (most often a sign of more severe disease)
  • Numbness, tingling, or burning in the hands and feet
  • Sleep difficulties

There is no test that can determine for sure whether you have RA. Most people with RA will have some abnormal test results. However, some people will have normal results for all tests.

Two lab tests that often help in the diagnosis are:

  • Rheumatoid factor
  • Anti-CCP antibody

Other tests that may be done include:

  • Complete blood count
  • C-reactive protein
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate
  • Joint x-rays 
  • Joint ultrasound or MRI
  • Joint fluid analysis

RA most often requires long-term treatment. Treatment includes medicines, physical therapy, exercise, education, and possibly surgery. Early, aggressive treatment for RA with newer drug categories can be very helpful to slow joint destruction and prevent deformities.

MEDICINES

Disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These are often the drugs that are tried first in people with RA. They are prescribed along with rest, strengthening exercise, and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Methotrexate is the most commonly used DMARD for rheumatoid arthritis. Leflunomide and hydroxychloroquine may also be used.
Sulfasalazine is a drug that is often combined with methotrexate and hydroxychloroquine (triple therapy).
It may be weeks or months before you see any benefit from these drugs.
These drugs may have serious side effects, so you will need frequent blood tests when taking them.

Anti-inflammatory medicines: These include aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen and celecoxib.

These drugs work well to reduce pain and swelling. Long-term use can cause stomach problems, including ulcers and bleeding, and possible heart problems.
Since they do not prevent joint damage if used alone, DMARDS should be used as well.

Antimalarial medicines: This group of medicines includes hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil). They are most often used along with methotrexate. It may be weeks or months before you see any benefit from these drugs.

Corticosteroids: These medicines work very well to reduce joint swelling and inflammation, but they can have long-term side effects. Therefore, they should be taken only for a short time and in low doses when possible.

Biologic agents: These drugs are designed to affect parts of the immune system that play a role in the disease process of rheumatoid arthritis.

They may be given when other medicines for rheumatoid arthritis have not worked. Sometimes biologic drugs are started sooner, along with other rheumatoid arthritis drugs. However, because they are very expensive, insurance approval is generally required.

Most of them are given either under the skin or into a vein There are different types of biologic agents.

Biologic agents can be very helpful in treating rheumatoid arthritis. However, people taking these drugs must be watched very closely because of serious risk factors:

Infections from bacteria, viruses, and fungi
Leukemia or lymphoma
Psoriasis
Allergic reactions

SURGERY

Surgery may be needed to correct severely damaged joints. Surgery may include:

Removal of the joint lining (synovectomy)
Total joint replacement in extreme cases: may include total knee replacement, hip replacement, ankle replacement, shoulder replacement, and others

PHYSICAL THERAPY

Range-of-motion exercises and exercise programs prescribed by a physical therapist can delay the loss of joint function and help keep muscles strong.

Sometimes, therapists will use special machines to apply deep heat or electrical stimulation to reduce pain and improve joint movement.

Other therapies that may help ease joint pain include:

  • Joint protection techniques
  • Heat and cold treatments
  • Splints or orthotic devices to support and align joints
  • Frequent rest periods between activities, as well as 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night

NUTRITION

Some people with RA may have intolerance or allergies to certain foods. A balanced nutritious diet is recommended. It may be helpful to eat foods rich in fish oils (omega-3 fatty acids). Smoking cigarettes should be stopped. Excessive alcohol should also be avoided.

How well a person does depends on the severity of symptoms and the response to treatment. It is very important to have regular return visits to the provider, who will adjust treatment to control the arthritis.

Permanent joint damage may occur without proper treatment. Early treatment with a three-drug DMARD combination known as "triple therapy," or with the biologic drugs, can decrease joint pain and damage. These drugs are given by specialists called rheumatologists.