Rheumatoid Arthritis: Symptoms and Treatment

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What to know

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease that currently affects about 1.5 million people in the United States. It can cause pain, stiffness, swelling, and redness, particularly in the hands, feet, and wrists. If untreated, it can lead to deformity of the joints and damage other organs, including the heart.

Who gets it?

Rheumatoid arthritis is most commonly diagnosed in people between the ages of 40 and 60; three-quarters are women. Symptoms may improve during pregnancy and get worse afterward. It is unknown why women are more likely to get it or what role pregnancy may play.

What causes it?

For people with rheumatoid arthritis, the body’s natural immune response goes awry. Joints become inflamed and may feel red, warm, swollen, and painful. Several factors are believed to play a role, including genes, exposure to certain bacteria or viruses, and smoking.

What are the symptoms?

Hallmark symptoms include morning stiffness that improves during the day and joint pain on both sides of the body, occurring both in small and large joints. Symptoms range from slightly problematic to disabling, and can make even simple daily tasks more difficult.

How is it diagnosed?

Doctors use a variety of tests to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis, including blood tests that look for specific antibodies. An ultrasound, X-ray, or magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI) allows the doctor to check for joint damage. A sample of the synovial fluid from the joint may also show irregularities.

How is it treated?

There is no cure, but many effective medications exist. They include anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, immunosupressants, and antirheumatic drugs to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and slow joint damage. Lifestyle measures, such as dietary changes and exercise can help. Physical therapy can help maintain flexibility. Surgery is a last resort.

When is it time to see a doctor?

Early diagnosis and immediate treatment can slow or even put a stop to the disease before damage occurs. Make an appointment with your doctor if your symptoms last for more than six weeks. If your doctor suspects you may have rheumatoid arthritis, he or she should refer you to a rheumatologist.