There are many different types of conditions that can cause chronic pain. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is certainly a challenging one. As one of the many types of arthritis, it can cause joint pain, swelling and stiffness. But what is rheumatoid arthritis exactly? How do you manage it if you’re diagnosed? Understanding the symptoms, causes and management techniques of RA can help you to live a more fulfilling life with this disease.
What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack your joints. Typically, your body attacks foreign bacteria and viruses. But when you have RA, your body causes inflammation in your joints, resulting in both swelling and pain.
Rheumatoid arthritis is different than osteoarthritis. Generally, osteoarthritis occurs because of wear and tear damage to joints. Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, affects the lining (tissue) of your joints. The pain you experience is a result of inflammation rather than joint wear and tear.
What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?
People with rheumatoid arthritis may not initially see swelling in their joints, but rather notice both tenderness and pain. Common RA symptoms include:
- joint tenderness and pain that lasts for 6 weeks or more
- stiffness during the mornings that lasts 30 minutes or longer
- pain and tenderness in more than one joint and often in the same joints on both sides of the body
Typically, early stages of rheumatoid arthritis affect smaller joints. This includes the joints in your hands and feet. As RA progresses, it may also affect larger joints such as elbows, wrists, knees, hips and shoulders.
In addition to the symptoms above, you may experience a loss of appetite and fatigue. You may even develop a low fever.
Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms can come and go. When you experience a period of increased inflammation and other symptoms, you are said to be experiencing a “flare.” Flares can last for days or even months at a time.
Keep in mind that RA is a systemic autoimmune disease. This means that it often affects the entire body. For many people, RA affects more than just their joints.
Other non-joint areas that may be affected by RA include:
- Skin: you may develop small lumps under your skin that appear over bony areas of your body
- Eyes: you may experience light sensitivity, dryness, redness, and vision impairment
- Lungs: shortness of breath may be caused by inflammation
- Mouth: you may have dry mouth and gum irritation
- Blood vessels: your blood vessels can become inflamed, causing nerve and skin damage
- Blood: reduced red blood cells can cause anemia
As with any condition, RA affects people differently and at varying levels of severity.
What are the long-term effects of rheumatoid arthritis?
It’s important to treat RA promptly, as inflammation can cause damage if left untreated. Chronic inflammation from RA can damage the cartilage that covers the ends of the bones in your joints. This inflammation can cause a loss of cartilage, and gradually the space between your bones in your joints can become smaller. As your joints are altered, they can become loose, painful, and unstable. You may experience reduced joint mobility and joint deformity.
This damage to your joints is permanent, so it’s important to find a doctor who will aggressively treat rheumatoid arthritis.