Rheumatoid Arthritis: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic joint disease in which joints throughout the body are constantly inflamed to some degree.

Rheumatoid arthritis cannot be cured but does go through periods of improved symptoms and periods where the symptoms are worse.

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own cells. In people with rheumatoid arthritis, their immune system specifically attacks the cells that line their joints. 

This causes inflammation, pain, and swelling that can affect every joint of the body.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

What Are the Early Signs of Rheumatoid Arthritis?

The early signs of rheumatoid arthritis may include some symptoms that are not particularly specific.

Symptoms such as fatigue and tiredness may occur before joint problems even start to become noticeable.

People who are just starting to develop rheumatoid arthritis may also have a general feeling of being unwell.

The main early sign that is specific to rheumatoid arthritis is joint pain.

This joint pain is often accompanied by joints that are warm to the touch, swollen, and have limited movement.

The joint pain and swelling will often occur equally on both sides of the body and start in the joints of the hands or feet.

What Does a RA Flare-Up Feel Like?

A flare, or temporary worsening, of rheumatoid arthritis will feel very uncomfortable.

The inflammation caused by the immune system attacking the lining of the joints will cause a warm, heated feeling in the joints.

Swelling caused by inflammation will cause a sensation of pressure. 

These sensations combine to cause constant achiness and pain during a flare.

This discomfort can worsen with movement and limit normal movement due to the pain.

What Causes or Triggers Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Causes of Arthritis

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known; however, researchers believe that it is a combination of genetics, hormones, and factors from your environment that work together to cause rheumatoid arthritis to initially develop.

Smoking is also thought to increase people’s risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

When someone has rheumatoid arthritis, there are many different things that could trigger a rheumatoid arthritis flare.

These include:

  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Overexertion
  • Infection
  • Low-pressure weather systems
  • Smoking or exposure to air pollution
  • Certain medications
  • Gum disease
  • Hormone changes
  • Certain foods

How do Rheumatologists Test for RA?

There are two key ways that rheumatologists test for rheumatoid arthritis once symptoms have developed. These include:

Blood testing - There are multiple blood tests that can be used to test for inflammation in the body and inflammation specific to rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatologists will often use these tests to help determine if someone has rheumatoid arthritis.

Imaging - Rheumatologists will typically use imaging to see what is happening inside of the joints. Imaging most commonly involves X-rays but may also involve MRIs or ultrasound imaging.

Rheumatologists will use the information from blood testing and imaging, combining it with the information they obtain during a physical exam to decide if rheumatoid arthritis is the cause of joint pain.

Who’s at Risk For Getting RA?

There are several risk factors for developing rheumatoid arthritis.

These include: 

  • Age - The older someone is, the more likely they are to develop rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Sex - Rheumatoid arthritis is significantly more likely to occur in women than in men.
  • Genetics - Certain genes increase the risk that rheumatoid arthritis will occur.
  • Smoking - Smoking nicotine products increases the risk that rheumatoid arthritis will develop and worsens the disease in those who have it.
  • No history of giving birth - Women who have not ever given birth are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than those who have.
  • Obesity - Being overweight increases the risk that rheumatoid arthritis will develop.

While risk factors predict who is more likely to have rheumatoid arthritis during their life, anyone could develop it, even if they do not have many or any of these risk factors.

How is Rheumatoid Arthritis Treated?

The treatment of rheumatoid arthritis will vary based on the specific individual but will generally involve three parts:

  • Medications - Medicines will be given that reduce inflammation and improve pain. Medicine that suppresses the immune system can also help to treat the underlying cause of arthritis.
  • Physical therapy - Physical therapy can help optimize joint health and mobility. This can help to slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and improve joint health.
  • Lifestyle changes - Rheumatoid arthritis is significantly affected by lifestyle. Exercising, reducing or eliminating alcohol and tobacco, achieving a healthy weight, and avoiding rheumatoid arthritis triggers can all improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis

    What is the Safest Drug for Rheumatoid Arthritis?

    Rheumatoid arthritis treatments often carry some degree of risk. This risk is different for each individual, and the safest and most effective treatment option will vary based on the individual.

    Because the best treatments for rheumatoid arthritis will be different for everyone, it is important to consult with a doctor who is familiar with your overall medical history and your rheumatoid arthritis.

    By seeking individualized care, you will be able to use the safest and best treatment options for your specific situation.

    How can I Manage My RA and Improve My Lifestyle?

    Improving your lifestyle can have a significant effect on rheumatoid arthritis, reducing the frequency and severity of flares while improving your overall symptoms.

    Some of the key lifestyle changes you can make that will help with rheumatoid arthritis include:

    1. Exercising for 30 minutes, three to five times weekly
    2. Stopping smoking
    3. Getting a full eight hours of sleep each night
    4. Avoiding stress
    5. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight
    6. Learning your RA triggers and avoiding them

    Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Rheumatoid Arthritis:

    What is the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis?

    What foods should you avoid when you have rheumatoid arthritis?

    What exercises are best to help rheumatoid arthritis?

    What is the risk of someone’s children having rheumatoid arthritis if they have it?

    How can someone plan ahead to treat a rheumatoid arthritis flare early?

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