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Rheumatoid Arthritis 101: Your Questions Answered

Author: Rosemary Buckle, M.D.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

While most people understand that “arthritis” is a common culprit of joint pain, many people are less familiar with rheumatoid arthritis, a specific type of arthritis that’s caused by the autoimmune system attacking healthy cells in the body. Unlike its better known cousin, osteoarthritis (caused by cartilage degeneration in specific joints subject to wear and tear), rheumatoid arthritis (“RA” for short) often occurs in multiple joints at once.

What are the symptoms?

Individuals with RA may experience pain in the hands, wrists, knees, and other joints. This can lead to chronic pain, difficulty balancing, and deformity. Common symptoms include:

    • Joints that are tender, warm or swollen
    • Stiffness in the joints that tends to worsen in the morning or after a period of rest
    • Fatigue
    • Fever
    • Weight loss

Rheumatoid arthritis often progresses from small joints (fingers) to larger joints (hips, knees, etc.). Symptoms usually affect the same joints on both sides of the body (e.g. both knees, both shoulders, etc.).

Approximately 40 percent of patients with RA experience additional symptoms in the skin, lungs, heart, and elsewhere. It’s normal for symptoms to periodically flare up and subside.

Who’s at risk for developing RA?

    • Women are more commonly affected than men.
    • RA typically begins between the ages of 40 and 60.
    • If you have a family member diagnosed with RA, you may be at an increased risk.
    • Individuals who smoke
    • Individuals exposed to asbestos or silica
    • Overweight and obese individuals

Are there complications involved?

Unfortunately, patients diagnosed with RA may be at greater risk for developing other health issues such as osteoporosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, lung disease, and cardiovascular health issues (among others).

How is RA diagnosed?

Diagnosis can be difficult in the early stages of the disease, as symptoms of RA are similar to the symptoms of many other diseases. While there is no single definitive test for diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis, physicians can use blood tests and imaging tests (in addition to physical examination) to diagnose this illness.

What treatments are available?

While rheumatoid arthritis does not have a “cure,” many patients with RA can enjoy an excellent quality of life by managing their condition with disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), which slow disease progression and protect tissues against permanent damage. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and steroids can also help. Working with a physical and/or occupational therapist has many benefits, as well. Finally, some patients may opt for total joint replacement or other surgeries to help with specific symptoms caused by RA.

Schedule With a Houston Orthopedic Doctor

For more information, schedule an appointment at Houston Institute for Sports Medicine & Orthopedics by calling (713) 756-5546.

Please consult with your physician before undertaking any form of medical treatment or adopting any exercise program or dietary guidelines.