5 Must-know facts about rheumatoid arthritis

5 Must-know facts about rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease affecting about 1.5 million Americans that is not always easy to diagnosis.  It is a disease where the body’s immune system attacks the joints of the hands, feet, wrists, elbows, knees and ankles causing inflammation resulting in swelling and pain.  Overtime, it can damage cartilage causing joints to become unstable, loose, painful and deformed. 

Anyone with a family history or already has RA, needs to know the following 5 facts about RA in order for them to be better informed of this disease:


1.  Rheumatoid arthritis is more than a disease of the joints

RA is an autoimmune disease in which inflammation damages the lining of joints, tissues that surround joints (such as tendons), other connective tissue throughout the body and the surface of bones.  It is one of more than 100 forms of arthritis affecting millions of Americans.  It is not the same disease as osteoarthritis which is commonly called the “wear and tear” arthritis.  RA can affect people of any age, including children, and may cause crippling disability that impairs a person’s ability to stay active and independent, and may shorten a person’s lifespan.

2.  Blood tests alone will not diagnose rheumatoid arthritis

To diagnose RA, it takes a combination of clinical history, laboratory tests, and imaging studies such as X-rays, MRI, or ultrasound.  Common blood tests used to help with the diagnosis include those that measure nonspecific inflammatory markers such as erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR or sed rate) or C-reactive protein (CRP).  People who have RA will generally test positive for rheumatoid factor (RF) or seropositive, but up to a third of people with RA will test negative for RF or seronegative disease. 

Seropositive means that blood tests show the presence of anti-cyclic citrullinated peptides (anti-CCPs), also called anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPAs). Anti-CCPs are antibodies produced against proteins in the body undergoing a molecular change in structure called citrullination. They are present in approximately 60 to 80 percent of people diagnosed with RA. Studies have found that, for many people, the antibodies precede the development of clinical symptoms by 5 to 10 years. If you have symptoms consistent with RA and a positive test for the antibody, an RA diagnosis is almost a certainty.

Seronegative means that tests don’t show the presence of these antibodies in your blood. A person can have RA without being seropositive, but it is easier to meet the criteria if you are positive.

3.  People with rheumatoid arthritis have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease

Not only are joints affected by RA but also other internal organs.  Because RA is a systemic disease can affect organs such as the heart, lungs, liver, or vascular system and it has been associated with heart failure, lung disease, eye disorders, fibromyalgia, depression, and more.  In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death among people with RA.  Therefore, this makes it very important for those with RA to emphasize heart health by controlling their blood pressure, blood cholesterol, eating a heart-healthy diet, and getting regular exercise. 

4.  Regular exercise helps rheumatoid arthritis

One way RA affects those with it is by causing pain, stiffness and a loss of range of motion.  To combat immobility from occurring, special care must be taken to protect joints during an RA flareup by keeping physically active.  Before settling on ways to keep moving, all RA patients should talk to their physician about the best exercise regimen for them.  The best way to get in regular exercise is to engage in low impact activities such as swimming, walking, cycling, or yoga. These forms of movement can improve and maintain strength, flexibility, range of motion, and cardiovascular health.  Studies have shown 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, five days a week, can boost mood and improve overall health and function. 

5. The best treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is early and aggressive treatment

Rheumatoid arthritis is a progressive disease.  If it is left unchecked or undiagnosed, it can cause permanent damage, disability, and dysfunction.  When treatment is begun aggressively within three months of symptom onset, this is crucial for helping patient achieve remission.  The problem however is that RA can take longer than three months to diagnose. Once diagnosed, immediate treatment with disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can help reduce RA symptoms and protect against damaging inflammation.  Once a person goes in remission or the disease is under better control, it will be important for them to stay on treatment since RA is a lifelong incurable disease which requires constant treatment.