What is rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s natural immune response wreaks havoc on the lining of the joints (called the synovial membrane), causing chronic inflammation and pain. The inflammation may eventually damage the joint’s cartilage and bone, weaken the soft tissue around the joint (cartilage, ligaments and tendons) and prevent the joint from working properly.
What are the symptoms of RA?
RA is a chronic, persistent disease that seems to take its own course over an affected person’s lifetime. It may progress slowly, sometimes produce “flare ups” of symptoms, and then at times go into “remission” during which the symptoms may greatly diminish or disappear. Unfortunately, RA never seems to go away completely.
Doctors sometimes talk about the three stages of RA. Those stages are identified by specific symptoms. In the first stage, RA causes pain, warmth, redness and swelling in affected joints. In the second stage, it causes thickening of the joint lining. In the third, permanent joint damage begins to occur as bone and cartilage are attacked by the enzymes released by the inflamed cells in the affected joint’s once-healthy cushioning fluid (called synovial fluid).
In addition to joint pain, swelling and stiffness, the symptoms of RA commonly include fatigue, weakness, flu-like symptoms accompanied by a low-grade fever, loss of appetite, depression, chronic dry eye or dry mouth and, in people with more advanced RA, bumps (called rheumatoid nodules) under the skin.
Without question, left untreated, RA can greatly reduce your quality of life. You may have already begun to decrease your activity level just to avoid the pain caused by a joint affected by RA. It’s not uncommon for the joint damage caused by RA to lead to a loss of movement, an inability to work, and even the need for surgery to repair the damage.
In order to diagnose you properly, your doctor will consider your symptoms and your medical history, examine your joint(s) and order one or more diagnostic tests. Your doctor may order blood work, X-rays, a CT scan or an MRI to get a clear view of your condition.
How is RA treated?
Your primary doctor will refer you to a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in inflammatory diseases like RA. Your rheumatologist may recommend different treatment options depending on the severity of your RA and its impact on your joint(s) and your body as a whole. And while there is no cure, RA can be controlled through the use of new drugs, exercise, joint protection techniques and self-management techniques.