Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the most common type of autoimmune arthritis. It happens when the immune system, or the body’s defense system, isn’t working properly.
If left untreated, RA can cause permanent damage and complications, like osteoporosis, deformity, rheumatoid nodules, and permanent joint destruction that could require joint replacement.
It’s important to get the help of a rheumatologist, a doctor who treats arthritis and autoimmune diseases. They can help you find the right treatment plan for your RA.
Signs & Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Early RA tends to hit your smaller joints, like fingers, hands and toes first. As it progresses, it can spread to your bigger joints.
In most cases, symptoms occur in the same joints on both sides of your body, and they include:
- Tender, swollen, or warm joints
- Joint stiffness that’s usually worst first thing in the morning or after too much inactivity
- Feeling tired
- Losing your appetite
40% of the those with RA also have symptoms that affect other parts of their body, like their:
- Salivary glands
- Bone marrow
- Blood vessels
These symptoms may come and go and vary over time. Flare-ups are when you experience increased symptoms, but there will also be periods where you experience little to no pain or swelling However, over time, the flare-ups can get worse and eventually cause lasting damage without treatment.
Diagnosing Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is frequently hard to diagnose in its early stages. RA’s early signs and symptoms are similar to those of many other diseases, and there’s no one test that diagnose it.
During your visit, your doctor will check your joints for swelling, warmth, and redness and your reflexes and muscle strength.
They may also order a blood test. Some people with RA experience elevated rates of a certain protein in their blood or their blood shows signs of inflammation. Other common blood tests look for a specific antibody common for those with rheumatoid arthritis.
Your doctor might also recommend x-rays to look at your joints and their progression over time or MRIs and ultrasounds to help them judge the severity of your case.
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but treatments for RA can help stop joint pain and swelling. Studies show that people who receive early treatment feel better sooner and are more likely to lead an active life. They’re also are less likely to have the type of joint damage that leads to joint replacement.
What kind of medicine your doctor recommends will depend the severity of your rheumatoid arthritis.
- NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can help with pain and inflammation. You can get over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium in your drugstore. Stronger NSAIDs are also available with a prescription from your doctor.
- Steroids like prednisone can slow joint damage and help with pain and inflammation. Doctors often prescribe these to help with immediate pain, intending to gradually taper them off later.
- DMARDs (Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs) can slow RA down and help prevent permanent damage to the joints and other tissues.
- Biologic agents or biologic response modifiers are a newer class of DMARDs that can target the parts of your immune system that trigger inflammation. They’re frequently paired with a traditional DMARD.
Physical or Occupational Therapy
Your doctor might also send you to physical or occupational therapy to treat your RA. They can teach you exercises to help you stay flexible and relieve pain and help you find easier ways to do things like daily tasks.
Your doctor might also recommend surgery to restore your ability to use your joints and reduce pain. Common RA surgeries include:
- Synovectomy – This surgery removes the inflamed lining of the joint and is commonly performed on hips, knees, elbows, wrists, and fingers.
- Tendon repair – Joint damage and inflammation can cause tendons around your joints to loosen, but this type of surgery works to repair them.
- Joint fusion – You may have to have a joint surgically fused to stabilize or realign it. It can also help with pain.
- Total joint replacement – This surgery removes the damaged parts of your join and replaces them with a prothesis.
What You Can Do to Improve Your RA
You should regularly do low-impact exercises, like walking, and exercises that increase muscle strength to both improve your overall health and lower the pressure you’re putting on your joints.
Extra weight can also be hard on your joints, so eating right and planning weight management can also help you reduce the stress on your joints.