What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease. It is characterized by a number of symptoms, including joint inflammation that usually affects the body symmetrically. This means that if a joint on one side of your body is affected, the same joint on the other side will also be affected.
In people who have RA, the body’s own immune system attacks the lining of the joints (synovium). The synovium becomes inflamed and swollen, causing severe pain and stiffness in the joint. Unlike osteoarthritis, which is caused by wear and tear in the cartilage and bone, rheumatoid arthritis is caused by the body’s own immune system attacking healthy tissues. While both RA and psoriatic arthritis are autoimmune diseases, psoriatic arthritis is characterized by skin lesions or plaques.
Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
RA is considered a systemic disease, meaning it affects the entire body.
Some of the key symptoms of the disease include:
- Joint pain and stiffness, especially in the morning or after periods of inactivity
- Malaise (a feeling of whole body discomfort)
- Muscle aches
- Mouth dryness
- Eye dryness
- Low grade fever
Many individuals with RA experience a period of severe symptoms known as a “flare.” It’s important for RA patients to identify their own flare triggers to better manage symptoms. Overexertion, stress, illness, lack of sleep, certain foods and even medications can trigger a flare.
Additional Health Issues Caused by RA
Rheumatoid arthritis can affect more than just the body’s joints. According to the Mayo Clinic, RA has been linked to lung scarring which can cause shortness of breath and chronic dry cough, among other symptoms. People with RA are also more likely to develop cardiovascular and blood vessel issues, including rheumatoid vasculitis. In fact, the Arthritis Foundation reports that RA doubles a person’s risk of developing a number of heart problems. This includes stroke and atherosclerosis. Many individuals with RA also develop skin issues, eye issues, anemia, blood clots and issues with pinched nerves.
Risk Factors For Rheumatoid Arthritis
Here are the key risk factors for developing RA:
- Being female. Women are 2-3 times more likely than men to be diagnosed.
- Smoking. Smokers have an elevated risk of developing RA. Those who develop the disease and continue to smoke often have worse disease symptoms than those who don’t smoke.
- Genetics. If you have a family history of RA, you are more likely to develop it.
- Obesity. Up to two thirds of people with RA are overweight or obese.
- Environmental Factors. Exposure to cigarette smoke, asbestos or air pollution can increase the risk of developing RA.
While there is currently no cure for RA, there are several treatment options:
- NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
- Corticosteroid medications
- Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) – Biologics are given by infusion or injection in a doctors office, while JAK inhibitors can be taken by mouth
- Surgery – Joint replacement surgery may be recommended for individuals with RA who have permanent joint damage that severely impacts daily life.