Healthy Living

Rheumatoid Arthritis Misconceptions: Debunked

Rheumatoid Arthritis Misconceptions: Debunked

What is rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, wherein the immune system mistakenly attacks the joints leading to stiffness, pain, and inflammation. Gradually, RA can lead to physical deformities. Rheumatoid arthritis is known to affect around 2 million Americans. This disease is mostly misunderstood by people. For this reason, it is important to know RA myths and facts to effectively manage the symptoms of the disease. 

Misconceptions About Rheumatoid Arthritis

1. RA is only for the elderly. 

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory and autoimmune disease, which is commonly diagnosed during early to mid-adulthood. Children can also be diagnosed with juvenile arthritis as young as 6 months up to 16 years old. In many of the cases, the individuals who develop rheumatoid arthritis are usually between the ages 30-55. Arthritis also tends to affect more women than men.

2. RA is the same as other types of arthritis. 

When we talk about the word “arthritis” it means inflammation in the joints. However, this term is generally used to describe more than 100 types of rheumatic diseases as well as conditions that have an impact on the joints, the various tissues that surround the joints, and other connective tissues. 

Depending upon the specific type of disease, there would be a difference in the pattern, location, and severity of the symptoms. When we talk about rheumatic conditions, they are often characterized by stiffness and pain, which is caused in and around one or more joints along with the symptoms that gradually develop or in certain cases, appear all of a sudden.

3. You need to have a serious joint problem to start treatment.

Do not wait until your condition becomes severe. Today, most doctors do not take the wait-and-see approach when it comes to RA treatment. It is really important to start with an aggressive course of treatment during the early phase of the disease to lessen the harmful effects caused by damaging inflammation.

The following are some of the common medications used to modify the disease:

  • Plaquenil (hydroxychloroquine)
  • Arava (leflunomide)
  • Methotrexate
  • Actemra (tocilizumab)
  • Orencia (abatacept)
  • Azulfidine (sulfasalazine)
  • Xeljanz (tofacitinib citrate)
  • Rituxan (rituximab)
  • Anti-tumor necrosis factor (anti-TNF) medications such as Simponi (golimumab), Humira (adalimumab), Enbrel (etanercept), Remicade (infliximab), and Cimzia (certolizumab)

4. RA symptoms can be easily diagnosed since the joints are always swollen and red.

Unlike other medical conditions such as septic arthritis or gout, inflamed joints that turn red are not always a common feature of rheumatoid arthritis. One of the characteristics of RA is symmetrical joint swelling, which is often seen in the fingers, wrists, knees, elbows, toes, knuckles, and ankles. Performing a careful palpitation of the joints would help identify the swelling of the joint from bony enlargement, which commonly occurs in osteoarthritis. 

The most sensitive test for joint inflammation is pain on passive motion. In certain rare cases, the inflamed joints may feel warm when touched. Moreover, inflammation, any kind of structural deformity, or both can limit the range of motion.

5. RA only affects the joints.  

Rheumatoid arthritis is known to cause serious damage to other parts of the body, which extends beyond the joints including the internal organs. Rheumatoid arthritis is also associated with other medical conditions such as lung problems, heart problems, depression, cardiovascular disorders, eye problems, and fibromyalgia. Potential RA complications may also arise due to multiple medications. Such RA complications would include anemia, liver issues, and kidney problems.

6. If you have RA, there is nothing you can do about it.

Rheumatoid arthritis does not have any cure, but there are various treatments and therapies that can help ease the pain and slow down the progression of the disease. 

It is said that disease prevention is the best. An individual with RA should regularly exercise and stay active, maintain a healthy lifestyle and weight, include healthy foods in the daily diet, and try to minimize joint injuries.

There are few preventive measures, which one can take to lead a healthy lifestyle. For the RA patients, taking medications such as NSAIDs, corticosteroids, painkillers, and COX-2 inhibitors would help relieve inflammation and tension. These drugs also help in preventing any further damage to the joints. Individuals with untreated RA would experience drastic joint erosions, wherein the joints do not grow back.

Thus, consult a doctor as soon as possible to get a proper diagnosis and timely treatment for your condition. 

7. Taking supplements can help rebuild the joints.

Another old RA misconception is about consuming glucosamine supplements and other supplements that contain gelatin. It is said that these supplements can help rebuild damaged joints. However, there is no scientific proof that can confirm that these supplements would help in the restoration of the joints.

In some cases, these pills and collagen-infused products may offer a temporary relief from pain and inflammation. Even though there has been no concrete evidence to prove or disapprove this particular theory, taking the supplements to reduce RA symptoms would not do much harm to the body. Hence, it may turn out to be a good option to explore. However, it is still recommended to check with your doctor first before taking any kind of RA supplement.

8. Exercise can aggravate RA. 

There has been a common myth that exercising can cause more damage to the joints leading to the worsening of RA pain. Most people with RA tend to believe that they need ample rest for their joints and mostly avoid doing any type of exercise or physical activity to prevent having joint stiffness and pain. When joints become painful and stiff, it is natural for the individual to avoid any kind of movement. However, the truth is that immobility is not beneficial to people with RA.

All muscles need some kind of physical activity to keep them healthy. There have been research studies about the benefits of exercises and treatment of RA. A range of motion exercises such as aerobic activities, strengthening exercises, and other gentle forms of yoga or tai chi has shown to provide a lot of positive effects on the body of individuals with RA. Carrying out exercises enables healthy and strong muscles. Regular exercising also provides individuals with a lot of energy, effective weight control, and a restful sleep. 

It is also recommended for individuals to incorporate brisk walking and other strengthening exercises as part of their daily routine. Regular exercises work a great deal on reducing the symptoms linked with depression, which has become common among patients with a progressive form of RA. Before carrying out any exercises, it is best to talk with your doctor about the exercises that you can do and their frequency to get the maximum benefits without leading to pain.

9. Arthritis is caused by poor dietary habits and aspartame.

There has been no proven connection between the consumption of a particular type of food and the development of RA. However, individuals can avoid certain food items if they feel that such foods tend to aggravate their RA symptoms. Opt for a nutritious and well-balanced diet, which is low in calories and saturated fats. Your diet should be rich in good fats, which can be found in fish, nuts, olive oil, fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains.

Consuming a healthy diet tends to improve one's health and well-being with or without the disease. Studies have suggested that carotenoids, which are mostly found in vegetables or fruits, and cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and broccoli are effective at protecting the joints. Eating a healthy diet can help you properly maintain an ideal body weight. Overweight or obese individuals with RA tend to put unnecessary pressure on their joints leading to worsening of the symptoms. 

A healthy diet is certainly an important factor since it can help prevent RA progression. However, the connection of other risk factors becomes complex in RA. Moreover, beware of food allergies since they can also aggravate your symptoms but not necessarily lead to RA.

10. RA is a result of long-term knuckle cracking.

It is quite common for individuals to crack their knuckles because it helps their joints to feel less stiff or in certain cases, helps in easing the tension between the joints. Researchers have not found any kind of association between cracking the knuckles and RA, although there have been reports of minor injuries in children when too much force was applied during knuckle cracking.

Other than extreme cases, cracking knuckles is simply just a vacuum phenomenon according to Mark A. McQuillan, M.D. from the University of Michigan. Due to the bits of excessive nitrogen gas dissolved in the body, it makes a popping noise and has nothing to do with RA.