Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto immune condition that mainly affects the small joints: hands, feet, wrist, elbows, knees and shoulders. It causes stiffness, pain, swelling and loss of movement. It also involves the eyes, lungs, blood vessels, heart and increases the risk of developing osteoporosis [brittle bones].

It is more common among middle-aged women than men. Among women, it is specifically found in those who have never conceived, or those who have given birth recently.

Since it affects people in the age group of 35 – 40, the repercussions are seen in all areas of life: work, personal, family, social.  In women, it may also affect their decision to have children.

Symptoms

The symptoms of the disease develop over weeks or months. Occasionally, they may be acute in nature.

  • The joints are swollen, painful and stiff on waking up. The stiffness lasts for more than 30 minutes. The spine is not involved except for the neck area.
  • Frequent fever, fatigue and weakness.
  • Skin becomes red, dry and flaky. Nails also get discoloured and break easily.
  • Muscles around the joints begin to shrink, thereby leading to difficulty in movement. Swelling and inflammation
    in the muscle and joint area further reduces movement.
  • Haemoglobin levels take a dip, resulting in spells of dizziness and fainting.
  • Swelling and dryness of the eyes is also common.
  • One of the strongest signs of rheumatoid arthritis [RA] going out of control is the development of digestive problems.
  • Diagnosis

It is sometimes difficult to be detected in its early stages because there is no single test for the disease. In addition, symptoms differ from person to person and can be more severe in some people than in others. The Rheumatoid factor test, which is done commonly for the diagnosis of RA, is not always accurate. There are many patients with rheumatoid factor negative but still develop RA. On the other hand, the rheumatoid factor test can be positive in a normal person who shows no symptoms of the disease. Hence, it is best to consult a rheumatologist for the correct diagnosis and treatment.

Causes

Family history:  Members of families that have human leukocyte antigen [HLA] gene have a higher risk of developing RA. However, it is not necessary that everyone with HLA will get the condition.

Age-related: Ageing is a natural cause, due to which there is weakening of the bones.

Overweight and obesity: Excess body weight puts too much pressure on joints, thereby increasing the risk of developing RA. Also, once the disease develops, the medication is less effective in those who are overweight.

Repeated injury to joints: Frequent injury to joints weakens them over time. This can hamper strength and mobility. It is important to use cushioning pads while doing any activity that may cause pressure on joints, like exercising or playing sports.

Lack of exercise: An immobile and lethargic body is an open invitation to rheumatoid arthritis. Your body is like a machine that needs to be constantly kept running in order to function smoothly and keep itself free of problems.

Unhealthy eating habits: Excess intake of protein, fat, calcium, alcohol or junk food should be avoided in order to keep rheumatoid arthritis at bay.

There is no one form of treatment for RA that can be prescribed to everyone. Patients need to consult a rheumatologist to find the right combination of drugs best suited to them. The treatment needs to be monitored and taken on a regular and continuous basis. Although there is no cure for RA, the disease can be well controlled, and the patient can lead a pain-free life.

This was first published in the November 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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