Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disorder. Our own immune system attacks our body and destroys bony tissue in the joints. Sometimes, other body parts are also affected, like skin, eyes, blood vessels, lungs, or heart, but mostly the joints are the ones which are mostly affected. It affects the inner layer of the joints, unlike osteoarthritis. In osteoarthritis, there is breakdown of joint cartilage. Basically, the major problem here is inflammation, which tends to damage surrounding tissues. Unlike osteoarthritis in which there is wear and tear damage, the lining of the joints get affected in rheumatoid arthritis, which causes inflammation and extreme pain that can lead to deformity of joints and bone erosion. The other parts of the body can get affected due to this inflammation in this condition. It is difficult to diagnose this condition during its early stages, because there is difficulty in differentiating its signs and symptoms that resemble the symptoms of many other health problems. This condition cannot be diagnosed via physical findings or blood testing, which makes it more difficult to identify. The joints need to be examined for swelling, warmness, and redness, along with the strength of the muscles and reflexes.
Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis
As already said, it is an autoimmune disorder. Our own immune system attacks the layer that surrounds the joint. This layer is called synovium. Then there is an upsurge of inflammatory cells in the joint capsule, leading to inflammation. The synovium gets thickened due to this inflammation, resulting in the destruction of bone and cartilage in the joints. There is stretching and weakening of the ligaments and tendons that keep the joints together, which causes the joints to lose their alignment and shape. One of the main symptoms that causes extreme trouble is sharp pain upon movement. This pain can sometimes be so unbearable that the patient may want to visit a doctor immediately or take painkillers for relief. Currently, the exact cause of the disease is not known, but doctors say that combination of environmental factors and genetics may play an important role. For example, if there is a family history of rheumatoid arthritis, then any environmental factor, like viral or bacterial disease, may give the genes of rheumatoid arthritis a head start. It can be said that genetics can make a person more susceptible to the triggers of rheumatoid arthritis.
The major risk factors of this disease are:
- gender- women are more susceptible to this disease than men.
- Age- older people are at higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, usually between 40-60.
- Family history- people with family history of rheumatoid arthritis have a very high risk of developing this disease.
- Smoking- it has been studied that smoking increases the risk of getting rheumatoid arthritis.
- Environmental exposure- This concept has not been understood properly, but it has been stated that some notorious environmental factors, like silicon and asbestos, can induce the genes causing rheumatoid arthritis.
- Obesity- This is a universal problem for most diseases, as it is for rheumatoid arthritis.
Signs and symptoms
The characteristic signs and symptoms are inflammation of the joints, tenderness in the joints, high temperature of swollen joints, stiff joints, and the stiffness becomes worse in the morning and with physical inactivity. Tiredness, fever, and loss of weight may also occur.
Rheumatoid arthritis in the early stages tends to affect the smaller joints, especially those of fingers and toes. Gradually, it spreads to the ankles, wrists, elbows, knees, hip joints, and shoulder joints. In the majority of cases, inflammation occurs in both joints, but sometimes it may occur in a single joint. There are some cases where not only the joint but other parts of the body are affected. This happens since our immune system is not able to distinguish properly. The most common non-joint areas that rheumatoid arthritis affects are the skin, eyes, lungs, heart, kidneys, salivary glands, nerve tissues, bone marrow, and blood vessels. Inflammation, tenderness, and warmth may be seen in the areas affected, apart from other symptoms. It is advisable to see a doctor when swelling and pain remain persistent for a long time. At first, the patient will visit a general physician. If the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis is given, then it is recommended to visit a rheumatologist. A rheumatologist understands the situation better than a general physician, since he/she has specialized in autoimmune disease and will prescribe better treatment options with which the patient will be able to live a longer and healthier life.
Rheumatoid arthritis and the medications used for treating this condition can increase the risk of osteoporosis (weakening of the bones, making them more susceptible to fractures) in the patients. Apart from this, some people can also develop firm tissue bumps (called rheumatoid nodules) around the pressure points or anywhere inside the body. As we know, rheumatoid arthritis is caused by autoimmunity, but this condition and the medications used for its treatment can further weaken the immune system of a person, which makes him/her more susceptible to infections. There are many patients who can suffer from dryness of the mouth and eyes, because they can experience Sjogren’s syndrome, which reduces the moisture amount from the mouth and eyes. The risk for scarring and inflammation of the tissues in lungs is also increased in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, thereby leading to shortness of breath.
The patients tend to have a higher fat proportion compared to the proportion of lean body mass. There have been reports that the people with normal body mass index also have a high proportion of fat. Some patients of rheumatoid arthritis can also develop lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that occurs in the lymphatic system of a person. The nerves serving many parts of fingers and hands can become compressed if the wrists of a patient are affected by rheumatoid arthritis. This condition is often referred to as carpal tunnel syndrome. Several heart problems are also associated with rheumatoid arthritis, because there is an increased risk of blocked and hardened arteries in the heart, and also the sacs that enclose the heart can also become inflamed.
If you show symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, be sure to discuss this with your general physician. If he or she believes it may be rheumatoid arthritis, you may need to see a rheumatologist.