When the immune system attacks the joints, it will cause inflammation. As a result, the synovium (inside lining of the joint that lubricates and helps the joints to move smoothly) thickens. This will then lead to swelling and pain in and around the joints.
If inflammation persists, it can damage the cartilage as well as the end of the bones. Over time, loss of cartilage occurs and the joint space in between the bones will be smaller. When this happens, the joints become loose, unstable and painful. Joint mobility will also be affected and joint deformity may occur.
Rheumatoid arthritis commonly affects the joints of the hands, wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, and feet. It affects both joints in the left and right side of the body. Therefore, if one hand is affected, the other hand is affected too.
When joint damage occurs, it cannot be reversed. That’s why it is essential to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis at the early stage of the disease.
Rheumatoid arthritis is also a systemic disease. As the disease progresses, it can affect body systems such as the cardiovascular or respiratory systems.
Who is Normally Affected by Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Women are three times more affected than men. In women, rheumatoid arthritis commonly begins between ages 30 years old and 60 years old, while in men, it often occurs later in life.
Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis
The real and exact cause of RA is still unknown. However, it is highly linked to the abnormal response of the immune system to the healthy cells of the body.
Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
During the early stages, people with RA may not initially the swelling and redness of their joints. However, pain and tenderness may be experienced.
The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Joint pain
- Morning stiffness for 30 minutes or longer
- More than one joint is affected
- Small joints are commonly affected
- Symmetrical affectation (same joints on both sides of the body are affected)
If RA is left untreated, various complications may happen in the body:
- Eyes – Pain, dryness, sensitivity to light, redness and impaired vision
- Mouth - Dryness and gum irritation or infection
- Blood Vessels - Inflammation of blood vessels can result to nerve damage
- Skin – Presence of rheumatoid nodules which are small lumps under the skin over bony areas
- Blood – Anemia, a lower than normal number of red blood cells
- Lungs - Inflammation and scarring, shortness of breath
How is Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosed?
Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages because the signs and symptoms are similar to other arthritic conditions. There is also no specific blood test or physical finding that can confirm the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.
Upon consultation, the doctor will conduct a physical exam. The doctor will check the joints for signs of inflammation such as swelling, pain, redness and warmth. Your reflexes and muscle strength may also be assessed.
People with RA have an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) which indicates the presence of inflammation in the body. Blood tests are prescribed to patients suspected with RA to check if they have elevated ESR as well as to check for rheumatoid factor.
Ultrasound and MRI determine the severity of the disease in the body. X-rays may also be recommended to help track the progression of the disease in the joints over time.