Understanding and Managing Your Rheumatoid Arthritis
Chronic health conditions affect untold millions of Americans each year. Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, is just one of many potentially disabling diseases common throughout the country. RA is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own joints, creating a continual state of inflammation and pain.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, estimates show that rheumatoid arthritis affects about 1.3 million people in America. Out of every 100,000 people in the country, 41 will be newly diagnosed each year with this condition. RA is different from the type of arthritis that normally affects older people because of the aging process. RA can strike anyone of any age group and tends to lead to more severe effects if it is not managed properly.
A proper diagnosis and targeted treatment plan are essential in dealing with the devastating effects that RA can create. The information below further addresses the diagnostic and treatment process, as well as other considerations for those dealing with RA.
Diagnosis of RA
Diagnosing RA can prove to be challenging in many cases. Many of the symptoms associated with this disease are the same or similar to symptoms caused by more common ailments. However, physicians rely on several testing procedures that can let them know that RA is the problem.
Physicians often begin with in-depth blood tests. According to the Mayo Clinic, people who are suffering from RA often have elevated sedimentation rates or C-reactive protein levels in their blood. These components can be found by blood tests and can indicate that a condition resulting in chronic inflammation is occurring. Imaging tests such as X-rays, ultrasounds and MRI scans can also be performed to help physicians diagnose and monitor the progression of RA.
Causes and Risk Factors for Rheumatoid Arthritis
The potential causes of RA remain poorly understood, but medical professionals do understand that a faulty immune response is at play within the body of those dealing with this condition. For unknown reasons, the body launches an elaborate immune defense against the joints as if they were a foreign invader that needs to be eradicated. Many theories abound as to what may cause the body’s immune system to go haywire and attack its own joints, including ideas that the process likely involves hormonal, genetic and environmental factors.
There are several known risk factors for the development of RA. Risk factors are conditions that lead to an elevated risk of developing the condition, but they do not guarantee that a person will get RA. Risk factors include being female, being overweight or obese, sharing specific genetic markers, having a family history of autoimmune diseases and regular exposure to many environmental contaminants.
Signs and Symptoms
There are many signs and symptoms of RA that can lead a person to seek professional assistance for a proper diagnosis. According to the American College of Rheumatology, some of the most common symptoms associated with RA are:
Those who suffer from RA often wake up feeling stiff or sore. It may take them several minutes or longer to even be able to move about properly due to the stiffness, especially in the joints. Lack of proper mobility can be severe and impact multiple areas of a person’s life.
Hot or Red Joints
When a person suffers from RA, the affected joints are in a state of chronic inflammation. This inflammation can become so severe that the skin over the joints appears red. The affected joints may also be hot to the touch, almost as if they are affected by a fever.
Lumps Under the Skin Near Joints
Lumps referred to as rheumatoid nodules can form in various locations throughout the body. These hard lumps usually form close to affected joints, especially the joints of the hands and elbows. These nodules can be sore to the touch.
Since RA is a chronic condition that worsens over time, low-grade fevers are also commonly experienced with the disease. The body’s immune system is in a constantly revved-up state, elevating the body temperature in an effort to fight the illness.
Fatigue and General Malaise
Dealing with the ongoing symptoms and discomfort associated with RA can zap a person’s energy and leave them feeling fatigued and run down. “General malaise” is an all-over state of feeling unwell or not at your best. Vitality drops, and physical tasks become arduous.
Dry Mouth and Loss of Appetite
It is very common for rheumatoid arthritis to be accompanied by other types of autoimmune diseases, such as Sjogren’s syndrome. This secondary condition can affect the mouth, resulting in chronic dryness and other changes. Additionally, most people battling RA experience a loss of appetite simply due to being unwell, and this can result in unintentional weight loss.
Joint Pain and Deformity
Of course, one of the main symptoms that leads people to seek a doctor’s expert opinion is the existence of severe or ongoing joint pain. Over time, the affected joints can also begin to become deformed, twisted and misshapen. Joint pain associated with RA often begins as mild and sporadic discomfort that continually worsens to become moderate or severe pain that occurs daily.
While these are not necessarily all the possible signs and symptoms to indicate a possible diagnosis of RA, they are the most commonly experienced ones. Any of these symptoms that continue or worsen over a period of weeks should be promptly evaluated by a qualified medical professional.
Complications of Rheumatoid Arthritis
A diagnosis of RA increases a person’s risk of several other conditions. The Mayo Clinic details several possible complications associated with RA, as listed below.
RA increases the risk of osteoporosis, a condition resulting in brittle bones that break easily. Many of the common medications used to treat RA also raise the risk of osteoporosis.
Both RA itself and many of the medications traditionally used to treat it can lower the immune system, leading to an increased risk of infections or more serious infections when they do occur.
When RA occurs in the joints of the wrist or hands, the inflammation can compress the nerves in this area and result in a condition known as carpal tunnel syndrome. Carpal tunnel can lead to pain, stiffness and limited mobility of the affected joints. Those who work with their hands will find this especially difficult to deal with.
Heart and Lung Disease
Over time, those with RA experience an increased risk of certain diseases of the cardiovascular system and lungs. These complications include an increased risk of hardened arteries, inflammation of the fluid sac surrounding the heart, scarring of the lung tissue and related conditions.
Lymphomas are a group of cancers that affect the blood. People with RA also experience an increased risk of various types of lymphoma.
Abnormal Body Composition
Even in people with normal BMI percentages and body weight, an abnormal body composition resulting from RA can occur. This means that the person may have an abnormal ratio of fat to muscle, which can ultimately increase their risk of other medical conditions.
This is not necessarily an extensive or complete list of all possible complications stemming from RA, but it provides more details on some of the most commonly experienced ones.
According to research explained by the Arthritis Foundation, RA affects well over 1.5 million people of all ages and backgrounds in the United States. It has been estimated that as much as 1% of the entire world’s population is affected by this condition. As stated earlier, the specific cause is not truly understood. More than likely, multiple factors are at play for each person affected by this condition.
The Arthritis Foundation lists RA as one of the most common forms of autoimmune disease, affecting more people than Crohn’s, psoriasis, lupus and MS. Statistically speaking, women are more than three times more likely to develop RA than men, and they also tend to develop the condition at a younger age. The average age of onset for RA is between 30-60 years.
Traditional Medical Approaches and Treatments
The goals associated with RA treatment, according to the Arthritis Foundation, involve protocols to stop the inflammation, reduce pain, prevent damage to the joints and organs and improve overall well-being. There are several standard approaches to RA treatment employed by most medical professionals.
Corticosteroids are often the first line of defense against RA. Corticosteroids are powerful and fast-acting anti-inflammatory medications. While they don’t stop the progression of the disease, they can effectively lower inflammation and reduce associated discomfort. The use of corticosteroids is often limited, however, due to their potential side effects.
Disease-Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs
Anti-rheumatic medications are designed to alter the course of the condition over the long term, resulting in a remission of the disease progression if it is possible to obtain. Methotrexate and hydroxychloroquine are two common drugs that fit into this category.
Some physicians rely on biologic medications that can be given in a doctor’s office or clinic setting via injection or IV infusion. The benefit is that biologic drugs tend to work faster than anti-rheumatic medications and don’t appear to have a negative effect on the overall immune system the way some RA treatments do.
Surgery is often considered a last resort for RA treatment, but it is a possibility when truly needed. Surgery may be helpful for those affected by long-lasting joint damage that negatively impacts their daily functioning.
Complementary and Integrative Health Treatment Options
For those who strive to take a more natural approach to their health and well-being, there are several integrative treatment options, dietary approaches and natural supplements that can help make RA more manageable. The Arthritis Foundation compiled a list of natural complementary treatment options, including:
Fish Oil Supplements
Fish oil capsules can provide essential fatty acids that can be beneficial for the health of the joints. These fatty acids can serve to properly lubricate the joints. This goes a long way in keeping the joints mobile. Additionally, fish oil has been reported to reduce inflammation, which can help curb pain in RA sufferers.
Turmeric is a popular spice that is often used in Indian dishes such as curries. Turmeric contains curcumin, a powerful anti-inflammatory that can help reduce swelling and pain and support an overall healthy immune system.
Capsaicin is a component found in hot peppers that has been widely recognized as a pain-relieving agent. It can be taken internally, but it’s more often added to creams or lotions that can be applied directly to affected joints.
Ginger is another common spice used in traditional cooking. Studies indicate that ginger can have pain-reducing and anti-inflammatory effects similar to popular NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, but results have varied. Ginger can easily be added to foods or smoothies, or it can be taken in capsule form as a dietary supplement. Topically applied creams containing ginger have also been shown effective for some patients.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, a proper diet has been known to help address many of the harsh symptoms that accompany RA. A diet rich in specific fruits and vegetables can boost the immune system, reduce inflammation and promote an overall greater sense of well-being. Those suffering from RA should strive to consume moderate amounts of fatty fish, such as salmon or tuna, on a regular basis. Cherries have been known for their joint-protective benefits for many decades, so adding them to your diet may also be beneficial. While cherries specifically help those with gouty arthritis, there is clinical evidence to suggest they can help RA sufferers as well. Green vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli, are beneficial in providing great sources of bone-protective calcium and other important minerals. On the other hand, packaged and highly processed foods tend to be nutritionally void and ultimately promote inflammation.
The takeaway is to consume a diverse diet that is centered around health-promoting fruits, vegetables and lean sources of protein. This type of dietary plan provides access to the greatest array of naturally existing vitamins and minerals, promotes a healthy weight and body fat ratio and boosts the immune system. These are all important factors in helping to control RA symptoms.
Human beings are complex, and the treatment for chronic diseases like RA is also complex. There are many things a person must consider when implementing lifestyle changes, adopting a healthier diet, reducing stress and finding the right medical team. Those affected by this condition or experiencing a new diagnosis should realize they have time to take it slow and develop a plan that feels right for them. In this manner, they can focus on obtaining a quality support system, such as understanding friends and family, who can also lend a helping hand. By working together with a support system, an experienced medical team and their own implemented lifestyle changes, most RA patients find they can manage their condition and live a happy, well-balanced life.
Lifestyle changes don’t have to be drastic to be highly effective at curbing and controlling RA symptoms. The following lifestyle enhancements, gathered by the Mayo Clinic, are fairly easy to implement, but can make a huge impact on the quality of life of those suffering from RA.
Daily low-impact exercise is the best form of activity for those dealing with RA. Aerobic activities that are harsh on the joints, such as running, are not recommended when a person has RA. However, walking, swimming and similar exercises that take the pressure off the joints are highly beneficial for arthritis sufferers. These forms of exercise serve to improve joint flexibility, keep muscles strong and boost overall cardiovascular health.
Many people with arthritis benefit from gentle daily stretching. This can be particularly helpful when performed right before bed. At night, joint inflammation can build up that leads to morning stiffness and pain. Bedtime stretches can help improve mobility and cut down on morning stiffness of the joints.
Rest and Stress Management
Dealing with a chronic health condition like RA is difficult. Those experiencing health problems such as this tend to have higher rates of anxiety and depression. Stress-relieving techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing or massage can all act to control anxiety and depression, resulting in a happier disposition overall.
Choosing a Doctor
When dealing with a chronic health condition, it’s vital to have a trusted medical team that is experienced and compassionate. Getting a second or third opinion is a widely accepted method when dealing with a new diagnosis. In doing so, you may also get a feel for which doctor you prefer. Everyone has different personalities, and you may be drawn to a different type of individual simply based on personal taste and personality differences. Whatever the case, it’s important for patients to look for a medical team that is well-experienced in treating RA and willing to listen to their individual needs and goals for their future course of treatment. Those affected by RA should look for a rheumatologist who specializes in treating this condition. Speaking to previous and existing patients can go a long way toward helping these individuals select the right person for their medical care.
Getting a diagnosis of RA can be devastating news for any individual, as well as their family members. For some, it may feel like a heavy burden with no clear way out. Although RA is a chronic disease for which there is currently no known cure, it is vital not to lose hope. With the medical advancements that have been made over recent decades, conditions such as RA can now be managed successfully by many different types of interventions. The information above can provide a great starting point for those recently diagnosed with RA as they begin to formulate an effective approach to treatment that will provide them with great long-term results.