There are several types of arthritis, with one of the most common forms being rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, which occurs when the body’s immune system is not working properly. RA most commonly causes pain and swelling in the wrists and small joints of the hands and feet.
RA frequently brings patients in to see us here at Arora Hand Surgery. Along with making an appointment with Dr. Arora, patients may benefit from reviewing the following basic information about rheumatoid arthritis.
What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by the damage or breakdown of joint cartilage between the bones. It occurs when your immune system attacks healthy cells, causing painful inflammation in the joints. When the lining of joints becomes inflamed, the tissue may be damaged, resulting in chronic pain, poor balance, and deformity. In some cases, the condition may affect organs such as the lungs, heart, and eyes.
Signs and symptoms of RA include:
- chronic pain or aching
- decreased flexibility
- deformity in the joints
- joint redness and warmth due to inflammation
Typically, the pain occurs on both sides of the body, such as in both knees. However, it’s possible that only one knee is inflamed at one time.
Although it is defined as a chronic illness, its effects change daily and the pain comes and goes. Some days, the individual may feel no pain at all; on other days the joint pain may be severe or even temporarily debilitating.
Rheumatoid arthritis flareup triggers are different from person to person, so it’s difficult to pinpoint them with certainty. Some flareups have a known trigger, such as overexertion of a particular joint; other flareups are unpredictable. However, common causes of flareups may include:
- use of certain medications
- bacterial infections
- weather conditions
What Causes RA
It’s unclear whether or not RA is hereditary. It’s a continuing debate that requires additional research. However, genetics are believed to be involved, at least on some level. In other words, RA may be caused by genetics and environmental factors combined. As noted on the rheumatoidarthitis.org website, individuals with a first-degree family member diagnosed with RA are about four times more likely to develop RA as well.
There are also several additional risk factors.
Joint Injury or Overuse
Overusing a joint – such as while playing sports or completing household chores – may lead to flareups or increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, as well as other forms of arthritis.
The risk of developing RA increases with age. Although you can get this form of arthritis in childhood, it tends to develop in middle age.
Women are more likely to have RA than men, and they are more likely develop it at a younger age than men would. Some researchers believe this is based on hormonal factors, especially in relation to pregnancy.
Another factor that has been discussed in relation to RA is obesity. It’s not clear whether or not obesity is a cause of the disorder, but it may trigger flareups due to excess weight on the joints. Obesity also may lead to heightened pain, increased progression of the condition, and a slower recovery.
Additionally, studies show that both RA and obesity tend to increase the risk for heart disease. Therefore, individuals who have both are at an even greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
In general, the sooner an individual seeks treatment, the less pain he or she will feel in the long-term. For that reason, it’s important to recognize some early warning signs of rheumatoid arthritis. They include:
- injuries that do not heal properly
- numbness and tingling in the hands
- swelling at the front of the feet
- pain in the heels and bottom of the feet
- locked joints
- fatigue or a general feeling of lethargy or depression
Additional warning signs among children include swollen lymph nodes or an unexplained rash or fever.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment & Self-Management
RA can be very painful at times, but it does not have to control your life.
Clinical treatment and self-management can reduce its effects, and you can learn to recognize flareup triggers in order to avoid them.
Perhaps the most helpful lifestyle change you can make is to regularly complete low-impact exercises. It’s important to keep your joints mobile with regular physical activity. Doing so also builds muscle, which will help support your joints and reduce the severity of any injuries that do occur. Staying active will also help you maintain a healthy body weight, potentially reducing the strain on the joints.
Keep in mind that it’s very important to choose exercises that do not strain your joints further, and you should learn proper techniques in order to avoid injury. Moderate, low-impact activities include swimming, pool exercises that alleviate hand arthritis, or walking in shoes with cushioned soles.
Clinical treatments for rheumatoid arthritis may help as well. These treatment options include:
- physical therapy, such as muscle-strengthening hand exercises
- medications, including over-the-counter pain relievers and prescription drugs
- the use of supportive devices such as crutches or canes to use during a severe flareup
- surgery if other treatment options have not been effective
Methods of coping with a current flareup include rest and relaxation, using cool packs to reduce swelling, using medical equipment such as canes if needed, wearing supportive shoes, completing gentle exercises to relieve stiffness based on your doctor’s recommendations, and taking warm baths or showers to relieve stiffness. You should also let your loved ones know that you are currently experiencing pain to ensure that they can support you.