A Rheumatoid Arthritis Primer

Leslie VandeverRheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a serious, chronic autoimmune disease that affects roughly 1.5 million Americans. While it mainly attacks the joints of the hands, wrists and feet, RA can attack any joint. It also attacks soft tissues and organs. The disease causes inflammation, swelling, pain, disability, and sometimes, premature death. RA is incurable, but new treatments developed over the last 25 years have made the disease much less devastating.

The body’s immune system protects it against foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria, by producing molecules called antibodies—tiny warriors that are tailored to seek out and kill or neutralize the specific virus or bacteria causing the infection. With autoimmune diseases, the body mistakenly perceives its own tissues as invaders and produces antibodies to attack and destroy them.

In RA, the body produces antibodies that attack the synovium, a fluid-filled capsule between the bones that cushions the joint. The autoimmune attack causes inflammation, stiffness, swelling and often, severe pain. Over time, the bones may erode and get forced out of alignment. The result is twisted, gnarled, disabled joints.

Unlike other types of arthritis, RA is also systemic: it can affect the entire body. Along with the joints, RA may attack the cartilage, ligaments and muscles that surround them. Organs such as the heart, the lungs, the veins, and even the eyes may also be attacked.

RA usually strikes between the ages of 30 and 60. For reasons that aren’t clear, women are two to three times more likely to get RA than men. Even so, children, teenagers and young 20-somethings also get the disease.

RA symptoms include joint pain, fatigue, flu-like malaise, low-grade fever, weight loss and poor sleep.

Scientists don’t know what causes RA, but factors that have a possible connection are:

  • Heredity—RA can be inherited, and there’s a gene associated with it and other autoimmune diseases. But having that gene doesn’t mean you’ll get RA.
  • Environment—Viral and bacterial infections may trigger the disease, but the evidence is not definitive.
  • Lifestyle—some studies connect smoking to RA, suggesting that it may trigger the disease and worsen its course.
  • Hormones—Women with RA may experience a remission of the disease while they’re pregnant. It usually returns after the baby is born. Those who take or have taken oral contraceptives may be less likely to get RA. And male hormones may be the reason that fewer men than women get RA.

Medical treatment of RA has improved greatly over the last 25 years. Scientists understand it and the autoimmune process far better than they once did. As a result, they’ve developed drugs that can have a profoundly positive effect. Today, RA is treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), and most recently, biologic DMARDs. While these treatments can have serious side-effects, their beneficial aspects outweigh the risks.

While RA remains incurable, its prognosis has improved, too. Early diagnosis and aggressive treatment with effective drugs are giving rheumatoid arthritis patients better lives and more hope for an eventual cure.

For more information about rheumatoid arthritis and other health issues, click here.

Guest post by Zintro expert Leslie Vandever

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