What Is It?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic (long-lasting) inflammatory disease that causes pain, stiffness, warmth, redness and swelling at the joints. Over time, the affected joint can become misshapen, misaligned and damaged. Tissue lining the joint can become thick, and may wear away surrounding ligaments, cartilage and bone as it spreads. Rheumatoid arthritis usually occurs in a symmetrical pattern, meaning that if one knee or hand has it, the other usually does, too.
The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown, although it appears to be a disease of the autoimmune system. When the body’s immune system does not operate as it should, white blood cells that normally attack bacteria or viruses attack healthy tissue instead — in this case, the synovium, or joint tissue. As the synovial membrane (the thin layer of cells lining the joint) becomes inflamed, enzymes are released. Over time, these enzymes eat away at cartilage, bone, tendons and ligaments near the joint.
Some research suggests that a virus triggers this faulty immune response. However, there is not yet convincing evidence that a single virus is the cause in all patients. At the same time, it appears that some people have a genetic predisposition to the disease.
Rheumatoid arthritis, the most disabling form of arthritis, generally affects more than one joint at a time. Commonly affected joints include those in the hands, wrists, feet, ankles, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees and neck. Rheumatoid arthritis can result in loose, deformed joints, loss of mobility and diminished strength. It also can cause painless lumps the size of a pea or acorn, called rheumatoid nodules. These develop under the skin, especially around the elbow or beneath the toes.
Generally, the pain of rheumatoid arthritis is described as a dull ache, similar to that of a headache or toothache. Pain is typically worse in the morning. It is not rare to have 30 minutes to an hour or more of morning stiffness. On days when the disease is more active, you may experience fatigue, loss of appetite, low-grade fever, sweats and difficulty sleeping.
Because rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease (meaning it can affect not just one area, but the entire body), you also may have inflammation other areas, including the heart, lungs or eyes. Symptoms vary between patients and even in an individual patient over time. People with mild forms of the disease are bothered by pain and stiffness, but they may experience no joint damage. For other people, damage occurs early, requiring aggressive medical and surgical treatment. People with rheumatoid arthritis may notice worsening and improvement for no apparent reason. Although this disease most often afflicts people between the ages of 20 and 50, it may affect children and the elderly. Of the 2 million people with rheumatoid arthritis in the United States, 75 percent are women.
- Pain, swelling, limited motion, warmth and tightness around affected joints, which most commonly include the hands and wrists, feet and ankles, elbows, shoulders, neck, knees and hips, usually in a symmetrical pattern. Over time, joints may develop deformities.
- Fatigue, soreness, stiffness and aching, particularly in the morning and afternoon (described as morning stiffness and afternoon fatigue)
- Lumps or rheumatoid nodules below the skin
- Weight loss
- Low-grade fever and sweats
- Trouble sleeping
- Weakness and loss of mobility
- Depression (may worsen existing depression or provoke it as a new problem)
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and will perform a complete physical examination. You also may be sent for a blood test. An abnormal antibody, called the rheumatoid factor (RF), is found in the blood of 70 percent to 80 percent of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. However, having RF does not necessarily mean you have rheumatoid arthritis. Many people who do not have rheumatoid arthritis can have RF appear in their blood. Other blood tests may be performed to look for other causes of joint pain, anemia and to check if the kidneys and liver are working normally.
You may hear about a checklist of symptoms (called criteria) for diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis. Although many physicians use this checklist as a guide, it is important to know that some patients with rheumatoid arthritis do not have many of the symptoms on the list, especially if their disease is mild. The diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis relies mostly on the experience and judgment of the doctor, and is based on the “big picture” of symptoms, examination and test results.
Most people with rheumatoid arthritis have chronic symptoms. They experience periods when symptoms get worse, called flare-ups, and periods when symptoms improve; rarely, symptoms and signs of the disease disappear, called a remission.
There is currently no known way to prevent rheumatoid arthritis.
The treatment of rheumatoid arthritis has improved dramatically in the past 50 years. A comprehensive approach that combines medications, rest balanced with exercise, lifestyle modifications, and sometimes surgery, can help many people to lead normal lives. The most important goals in treating rheumatoid arthritis are maintaining your ability to move and function, reducing pain and preventing future joint damage. If these are achieved, quality of life and length of life may be normal. The treatments themselves may cause problems. You and your doctor will have to weigh the risks and benefits of any medication or other treatment that is available for this disease.
Certain medications relieve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (such as pain and swelling), while other medications slow the progress of the disease.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including prescription aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin and other brand names) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), are helpful primarily to relieve symptoms. Side effects occur in a minority of patients. These include upset stomach, ulcers, reduced kidney function or allergic reactions.
Newer NSAIDs, including celecoxib (Celebrex), rofecoxib (Vioxx) and valdecoxib (Bextra), may provide the same benefits as older medications but with less risk of ulcers. However, the risk may be less but it is not zero; one study showed that for people at highest risk (those with recent bleeding ulcer), up to 10 percent of those treated with celecoxib developed a new ulcer; in addition, the risk was similar for these high-risk patients when taking an older agent (diclofenac) combined with a medication to protect the stomach (omeprazole).
The newer drugs cost more and have other possible side effects. For example, one study found that rofecoxib was associated with a small, increased risk of heart attack compared with an older anti-inflammatory medication, naproxen (although this may have been caused by a protective effect of naproxen rather than by an increased risk with rofecoxib). Other pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or tramadol (Ultram), may provide additional pain relief when taken with an NSAID.
Corticosteroids, such as prednisone (Deltasone and other brand names), reduce inflammation and may slow joint damage (although the latter is controversial). However, they have little lasting benefit and come with a long list of troubling side effects, such as easy bruising, thinning of the bones, cataracts, weight gain, puffy face, diabetes and high blood pressure, among others. If you do use corticosteroids, follow your doctor’s recommendations closely. Your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid to relieve occasional flare-ups, and then gradually taper you off the medication. Stopping corticosteroid therapy suddenly can be dangerous.
Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (called DMARDs, second-line drugs or remittive therapies) appear to slow or halt the progression of rheumatoid arthritis by altering the function of your body’s immune system. Most experts recommend that all persons with rheumatoid arthritis take a DMARD soon after the diagnosis is established to reduce the chances of joint damage.
These drugs include methotrexate (Folex, Methotrexate LPF, Rheumatrex), hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) or sulfasalazine (Azulfidine). Each of these comes with a small risk of serious side effects; your doctors will review them with you.
Newer medications include leflunomide (Arava) in pill form, and etanercept (Enbrel), adalimumab (Humira) and infliximab (Remicade) by injection. These can be highly effective, but because they are new and more expensive, most doctors recommend other treatments first. One of the newest medical therapies approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for rheumatoid arthritis is anakinra (Kineret), an injectable drug that appears to be only modestly effective but may be a reasonable option if other treatments have failed. Other therapies in this class include minocycline (Minocin), cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune), immunoadsorption (a blood-filtering procedure), gold and penicillamine (Cuprimine, Depen), although these treatments are used much less often because most experts find that their effectiveness and safety profiles are not as attractive.
Because the newest medications have been studied only in selected, and often the healthiest, people, they may have side effects that are not yet well known. For example, infliximab had newly discovered risks only a year or two after it was approved for use. Studies found that tuberculosis, although rare, was more common than expected among those receiving treatment. In addition, in a trial of infliximab treatment for congestive heart failure, a higher death rate was observed compared with those not receiving the drug. These findings have led to new recommendations about how patients should be screened before treatment begins. Because these medications take some time to start working, your doctor will probably advise you to take an NSAID, a corticosteroid or both during the early weeks or months of treatment with a DMARD.
Diet, exercise and rehabilitation services
Finding a balance between rest and exercise is crucial to managing rheumatoid arthritis. When your symptoms flare — when your joints are sore, warm and swollen — take it easy and rest. You can continue to perform range-of-motion exercises to keep your joints mobile, but be careful not to tire yourself or aggravate your joints. Avoid unnecessary walking, housework or other activities. When your joints feel better and when other symptoms, including fatigue and morning stiffness, are less noticeable, increase your activity. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking and lifting weights can strengthen weakened muscles without risking additional joint damage. If exercise produces more pain or joint swelling, cut back a bit.
Despite many claims, there are no dietary changes, supplements, herbs or other alternative therapies known to improve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis over a long period of time.
Having rheumatoid arthritis often means that you have to pay special attention to the way you move. An occupational therapist or physical therapist can offer suggestions and guidance as you manage ordinary tasks around your home and work. In addition, a therapist can provide special devices that can help you conserve energy and protect your joints as you go about your daily activities. A splint, brace, sling or Ace bandage worn during times of particular tenderness can take the pressure off joints and protect them from injury. A podiatrist may provide shoe inserts (orthotics) or even suggest surgery to improve pain and function in arthritic feet.
In some cases, surgery is needed to remove inflamed tissue, or to reconstruct or replace the affected joint. When rheumatoid arthritis causes significant destruction and pain in the hip or knee, arthroplasty, a surgical procedure to replace the joint, may be an effective option. Because rheumatoid arthritis may cause tendon damage, especially in the hand and wrist, surgical tendon repair may be recommended.
When To Call A Professional
Tell your doctor if you experience any of the following:
- Pain, stiffness, warmth, redness or swelling at the joints (of the wrist, fingers, neck, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles and feet)
- Problems in symmetrical joints (both knees, for example)
- Occasional fever
- Pain or stiffness in the morning (lasting more than 30 minutes)
Effective treatment can help you live well with rheumatoid arthritis, although the severity of the disease and its response to therapy are highly variable.
Diseases and Conditions Center
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.