When we think of rheumatoid arthritis, we tend to think of pains in the joints, but for many people, it can affect skin, eyes, lungs, heart, blood vessels and many more body systems. It is a physically debilitating disease, the cause for which is still not clear to researchers.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. That is, it is brought on by your immune system mistakenly attacking your own body's tissues. In this case, the targeted tissue is the synovium, the linings of the membranes that surround your joints, which become painfully inflamed. It's that inflammation that can damage other parts of the body as well.
The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include:
· Tender, warm, swollen joints
· Joint stiffness that is often worse in the mornings and after inactivity
· Fatigue, fever and weight loss
In its early stages, rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect your smaller joints first — particularly the joints that attach your fingers to your hands and your toes to your feet. As it progresses, your wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders will become affected. In most cases, symptoms occur in the same joints on both sides of your body, in parallel.
The inflammation thickens your synovium, which will eventually destroy the cartilage and bone within the affected joint. The tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together weaken and stretch, and gradually, the joint loses its shape and alignment altogether.
As we have seen here before, rheumatoid arthritis is difficult to diagnose, because its early stage symptoms are reminiscent of those for so many other ailments. But unlike many other diseases, there is no blood test or physical finding that confirm a diagnosis.
In later stages, patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis will often have an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate or C-reactive protein, which may indicate the presence of an inflammatory process in the body. Other common blood tests look for rheumatoid factor and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide antibodies. Various imaging tests – X-rays, magnetic resonance, and ultrasound – can help your doctor track the disease's progress.
Unfortunately, as doctors do not know what initiates rheumatoid arthritis, nether do they have any cure for it. Current treatments include physical therapy, sometimes supplemented by assistive devices.
Surgery is also an option. A synovectomy will remove the inflamed lining of the joint, and tendons around the affected joints may also be surgically repaired.
Both steroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed to relieve your pain and reduce inflammation.