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What is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA): Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA): Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Apria Editorial |

With ApriaHome, you are not alone.

By providing resources for learning and delivering unparalleled patient support, we hope to help RA sufferers and those who care for them reclaim control of the condition. In this comprehensive guide, we uncover what RA is as well as its symptoms, causes, treatment solutions & more.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic (long-lasting) autoimmune disease that mostly affects joints. With RA, the body's immune system mistakenly targets the tissue lining the joints. Other organs or systems in your body might also be impacted; however, the root cause is often unknown. Lifestyle modifications, other forms of treatment, medicine, and sometimes surgery may be recommended to treat and manage the condition.

The American College of Rheumatology reports that RA is the most prevalent type of autoimmune arthritis. About 0.6 to 1% of the US population, approximately 1.3 million individuals, have been diagnosed with RA.

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) go beyond just pain. For those who live with RA, the misunderstanding and isolation around this condition are sometimes as challenging to deal with as the physical symptoms.

By providing resources for learning and delivering unparalleled patient support, we hope to help RA sufferers and those who care for them reclaim control of the condition. In this comprehensive guide, we uncover what RA is as well as symptoms, symptoms, causes, treatment solutions, and more.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a painful inflammatory disorder caused by the body's immune system mistakenly attacking healthy cells. It is also the most common type of autoimmune arthritis.

In contrast to osteoarthritis's progressive wear and tear, RA attacks the lining of your joints, resulting in severe inflammation that can lead to bone erosion and joint deformity.

In most cases, RA will affect many joints at once, including the hands, wrists, and knees. The lining of a joint becomes inflamed due to RA, leading to painful tissue damage. Chronic discomfort, inability to maintain balance, and physical deformity are all possible outcomes of this kind of tissue damage.

As an autoimmune and inflammatory disease, RA is characterized by inflammation, which may spread to other organs and cause harm. RA can also affect the lungs, heart, and eyes.

How Is Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosed?

Diagnosis and treatment of RA should be conducted by a specialist or medical professional with expertise in the care of RA patients. This experience is necessary because RA's symptoms are nonspecific and mimic those of other inflammatory joint conditions.

A doctor specializing in diagnosing and treating arthritis is called a rheumatologist. Consult the American College of Rheumatology's (ACR) directory to find a rheumatologist in your area.

Diagnosing RA as soon as possible after the first signs of the illness appear (ideally within six months) increases the likelihood that the disease's progression can be slowed or stopped.

RA causes joint inflammation and pain; however, the early symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are similar to those of many other conditions, making a diagnosis challenging. It takes a combination of diagnostic techniques to pinpoint a diagnosis of RA.

Diagnosing RA includes:

  • Examining symptoms
  • Doing a physical exam
  • Sometimes running x-rays or other diagnostic lab testing techniques

During a physical examination, your doctor will examine your joints for signs of inflammation, such as redness and warmth, as well as your reflexes and physical strength.

Diagnostic Blood Testing:

RA patients often exhibit signs of inflammation, which are characterized by increased levels of:

  • C-reactive protein (CRP) levels
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR, or sed rate)
  • Anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies

Diagnostic Image Testing:

X-rays may be ordered by your doctor to monitor the joint damage caused by RA. Diagnostic imaging techniques like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound assist doctors in assessing the extent of damage done to joints.

What Are The Symptoms Of Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Flares and remissions are terms used to describe the fluctuating severity of RA symptoms.

Symptoms that may accompany rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Painful, swollen, and heated joints
  • Morning and post-inactivity joint stiffness
  • Weakness, nausea, and a lack of appetite

Small joints, such as those that unite fingers and toes, are often the first to feel the effects of early rheumatoid arthritis.

Larger joints, such as the wrists, knees, hips, shoulders, ankles, and elbows, are common sites where symptoms appear as the condition advances. You'll likely feel pain within the same joints on both sides of the body.

Approximately 40% of those with RA also report non-joint manifestations of the disease. Regions that could be impacted include:

  • Major organs such as skin, heart, kidneys, eyes, lungs
  • Internal systems such as bone marrow, blood vessels, salivary glands, and nerve tissue

The intensity and frequency of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms can differ considerably from patient to patient.

Short-term Complications:

Flares, combined with periods of relative remission, during which symptoms like swelling and discomfort subside or go away altogether.

Long-term Complications:

Joint deformity and dislocation are common long-term effects of RA.

What Are The 4 Stages Of Rheumatoid Arthritis?

A person with RA will see physical changes as the condition progresses. Certain changes are more obvious to the senses, while others are harder to detect. Goals for treatment may differ according to the RA stage.

Stage 1:

Here, RA is considered to be at its initial stage. People with RA may not realize it at first, and physicians may have trouble diagnosing it in its early stages because of the lack of visible symptoms.

But if a doctor can make a diagnosis and start the patient on a course of treatment within 12 weeks, there is a strong probability that the condition will go into remission.

The most common early signs of rheumatoid arthritis are:

  • Joint pain
  • Stiffness
  • Inflammation

Pain and stiffness are primarily experienced in the knuckles and finger joints. This is caused by an inflammation in the joint lining (synovium).

Stage 2:

Blood testing could come back negative for RA antibodies despite physical symptoms. When RA progresses to stage 2, the condition is considered moderate. At this point, the inflammation in the synovium has already damaged the cartilage and bone in the joint. The areas of bone situated at the points where the cartilage ends are the first places affected by this deterioration.

Cartilage damage may cause:

  • Discomfort and limited motion
  • Decreased joint mobility
  • Joint stiffness and trouble bending smaller joints, e.g. fingers and toes

Stage 3:

Here, RA is considered serious by medical professionals. At this stage, the condition has progressed to bone and cartilage degeneration. When the cartilage that normally separates bones deteriorates, the bones start to rub against one another, causing extreme pain.

As a result, patients may experience the following:

  • Increased pain and discomfort
  • Muscle weakness
  • Bone damage and erosion
  • Joint deformation in fingers, wrists, and ankles
  • Symptoms of carpal tunnel and torn tendons
  • Decreased mobility

At this stage, the extensor tendons in the fingers are at a high risk of rupturing. However, this can be avoided with early detection.

Stage 4:

Once the condition reaches stage 4, the joint no longer shows signs of inflammation; however, joint function severely declines. Progression through all four stages may take years, and some patients do not reach all four stages. In very rare occasions, bone fusion or ankylosis occurs.

In the final stages of RA, patients can experience the following:

  • Extreme discomfort
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Loss of mobility
  • Muscle weakness
  • Bone fusion
  • Joint degradation

Loss of hand function, stiffness in the knees and hips, and other symptoms can occur in advanced RA, but they vary in severity and location.

What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Autoimmune diseases, including RA, occur when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, although the exact trigger for this is unknown.

The immune system usually produces antibodies to fight viruses and infections. RA occurs when the immune system incorrectly dispatches antibodies to the joint lining, where they proceed to damage the surrounding tissue.

The result is pain and inflammation in the synovium, the thin layer of cells that covers your joints, which in turn releases chemicals that cause damage to the surrounding cartilage, tendons, bones, and tissue.

Without intervention, these chemicals cause the joint's form and alignment to deteriorate, making RA a chronic condition with the potential to destroy a joint and its surrounding structure.

Several hypotheses, including acute infection as a trigger, have been proposed to explain why the immune system targets the joints, but they have yet to be proven.

How To Treat Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease for which there is currently no cure. However, early therapy with pharmaceuticals known as disease-modifying antirheumatics increases the likelihood of symptom remission. Recent advances in medicine have significantly increased the effectiveness of therapy for RA. However, severe cases may still result in permanent physical disabilities.

Methods for treating RA include:

Rheumatoid Arthritis Medications:

The medication recommendations for RA will be based on how long you've had the condition and how severe your symptoms are.

Commonly prescribed medications include:

  • NSAIDs: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve pain and inflammation.
  • Steroids: Corticosteroid medications to reduce inflammation.
  • Conventional (DMARDs): Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs used to slow the progression of tissue and joint deterioration to prevent irreversible damage.
  • Biologic Agents: Biologic response modifiers used in conjunction with conventional DMARDs.
  • Targeted Synthetic DMARDs: For use when conventional DMARDs have been ineffective.

Assistive Therapy:

A physical or occupational therapist who will recommend specific exercises to maintain your range of motion. The therapist could also recommend other techniques for doing common chores to reduce strain on the body.

You may find that it is simpler to avoid aggravating your aching joints with the help of assistive devices that help reduce strain from joints during daily activities such as grasping, carrying, and lifting.

Surgery:

Surgery to repair damaged joints may be considered if the patient and medical team have tried other measures to prevent or delay joint deterioration without success. There is a possibility for recovery of joint function after surgical intervention, as well as reduced pain and improved joint functionality.

The following surgical procedures may be used to treat RA:

  • Synovectomy: By removing the synovium, or lining of the joint, which has become inflamed, this form of surgery can help alleviate discomfort and restore mobility.
  • Tendon Repair: Tendons supporting your joint might become loose or even rupture with inflammation or joint injury deterioration. These tendons that support your joint can be surgically repaired for improved support.
  • Joint Replacement & Fusion: Joint replacement surgery replaces your injured joint with a metal and plastic prosthesis. When joint replacement isn't possible, a surgeon may consider fusing the joint to stabilize it, realign it, and alleviate discomfort.

Rheumatoid Arthritis FAQ

Is rheumatoid arthritis genetic?

No clear genetic link has been shown for RA. However, some people may be more predisposed to the disease because of their genetic makeup and family history. The risk of developing RA is 0.8% higher in those with a family history of the condition compared to the risk among those without a family history, who have a 0.5% risk of developing RA.

What is the best pain relief for rheumatoid arthritis?

There are three readily available methods for treating the pain associated with arthritis:

  • Pain that develops from arthritis flare-ups may be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers such as those containing acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium.
  • A joint pain relief cream containing capsaicin may be administered topically to the skin. Use it by itself or in combination with oral medications.

Our recommendation:

The use of an assistive massage therapy device can help promote blood circulation and mobility to the region.

Our recommendation:

Can Siddha cure rheumatoid arthritis?

Siddha therapy is based on dietary adjustments and limitations, as well as medications made from natural plant extracts and herbal oils. These are used in RA with a combination of oral and topical applications.

Due to the chronic nature of RA, you may find it challenging to carry out routine tasks and limit the range of motion you're capable of. A Siddha treatment plan offers an improved quality of life and reduced severity of RA symptoms, but to date, there is no known RA cure.

Can rheumatoid arthritis cause urinary problems?

As an autoimmune disease with systemic effects, RA may manifest itself in various bodily systems. Consequences of RA include bladder discomfort, infections, and increased rates of urinary tract infections (UTIs), especially among the elderly. Further evidence suggests a connection between RA and bladder pain syndrome/interstitial cystitis, which causes increased urinary urgency and frequency.

Spreading Awareness & Offering Support For Patients And Loved Ones Affected By RA

Rheumatoid arthritis carries very few visible symptoms until it progresses to the advanced stages. RA affects quality of life; many patients struggle due to a lack of understanding of their symptoms or an inconclusive diagnosis. The disease can therefore cause a lot of isolation for patients, which is why ApriaHome is passionate about providing resources and tool kits. Our goal is to help patients and loved ones better understand and manage autoimmune diseases like RA by providing unparalleled support, comprehensive guidance, and premium-quality medical equipment and treatment solutions.

Browse our extensive range of medical equipment treatment solutions available from the comfort of your own home. Order now and receive free nationwide delivery on all purchases over $99.

Need advice or more information? Our friendly and experienced agents are available on call at (800) 780-1508 between 8:00 am - 10:00 pm EST. Get in touch today.

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