A Plan of Attack for Rheumatoid Arthritis
by Tracey Pollack
Rheumatoid arthritis, also known as RA, is a sore spot for many who endure the pain of this autoimmune disease. As the most debilitating form of arthritis, the joint soreness it causes results from a problem with your immune system that triggers the body to attack the lining of the joints. If you suffer in silence, the inflammation from the condition can damage other parts of your body. While no one is immune from RA, watching for these warning signs and seeking the right treatment can save you from suffering the painful consequences.
The A, B, Cs of RA
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that is caused when your body’s immune system can’t detect the difference between healthy and unhealthy cells. See, a healthy immune system naturally detects diseased cells and produces antibodies to fight off infection. But when you have RA, your immune system attacks the healthy cells in your body, usually in the joints of your fingers, hands, wrists, knees and toes. This causes inflammation in these joints, which leaves them swollen, stiff and sore. Over time, what started as mild discomfort can become serious damage to your joints and lead to physical deformities.
Spot the Symptoms
With RA, you don’t have to go to great pains to notice the early warning signs because you will feel them right away. Some of the early symptoms only affect your joints, while other involve the way you feel and function overall, including:
- Tenderness in the joints
- Joint stiffness at any time of day
- Joint pain, redness or swelling
- Slight fever due to inflammation
- Numbness and tingling in the hands or feet
- Decrease in the range of motion
- Joint pain on both sides of the body
- Unexplained weight loss
With RA, there are times you will have a flare up and the symptoms get worse, but other times that your body goes into remission and you don’t have any signs at all. For some, the damage can extend beyond the joints to the eyes, skin, lungs, heart and more. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor to avoid long-term damage and distress.
Your Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis
While no one knows what makes the immune system attack its own healthy cells, there are certain factors that may increase your risk, including:
- Age – While RA can strike at any age, it tends to appear between the ages of 40 and 60.
- Gender – Generally, the disease afflicts more women than men. The likelihood increases even more for women who have recently given birth or never been pregnant at all.
- Family history – This is one family trait often shared by generations.
- Smoking – Lighting up makes your risk go up even more.
Interestingly, other factors can actually reduce your risk of RA, such as moderate alcohol consumption and breastfeeding.
Getting Relief from RA
Living with RA demands learning how to manage its symptoms. The key to finding comfort is early, aggressive treatment. This begins by seeing a doctor that specializes in RA, known as a rheumatologist. The ultimate goals of treatment are relieving pain, reducing inflammation and decreasing disability related to the disease. Today, there are many medications, therapies and exercises that can help you achieve these goals.
The most common medications for RA are NSAID drugs, which help reduce pain and swelling but aren’t able to slow the disease. Steroids may also be used to help decrease inflammation and lessen joint damage. For moderate or severe cases, disease-modifying DMARD drugs can help slow RA’s progression and save joints from permanent damage. Certain therapies and exercises can help keep your joints flexible and your life much more comfortable.
By seeking early treatment and managing the symptoms, living with RA won’t be such a pain.