Classified as progressive and chronic, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a systemic inflammatory disorder which most often affects the joints and destroys their cartilage and sheaths. Then again, RA can also attack any number of other organs and tissues of the body such as the lungs, pericardium, pleura and sclera as well as the subcutaneous tissue under the skin. The exact cause or causes of RA have not yet been identified, but most medical researchers believe that autoimmune factors are strongly associated with its severity as well as its chronic progression.
No one is immune from developing rheumatoid arthritis as it assaults both genders; it can set in at any age; and it involves all ethnicities, all races and all socio-economic groups. However, it is estimated that roughly one percent of the world population is afflicted by RA and studies show that women are three times as likely to get it as men and that the overwhelming majority of cases begin after the age of 45.
Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis differ as the disease strikes different organs. It is important here to note that it is unclear whether organs other than the joints are affected directly by the disease or are a consequence of the medications administered for the disease:
When the joints are affects the RA condition leads to the inflammation of the synovial membranes that line the joints and tendon sheaths and their ultimate destruction. It is mostly the small joints of the hands, feet and cervical spine which are affected by RA but it can also affect the larger joints such as the shoulders, the knees and the hips. Whichever joints are affected, the patient experienced swelling, stiffness, impaired range of motion and pain with radiating heat. In later stages deformities occur.
The skin is affected by rather small fibroid rheumatoid nodules which appear over bony areas or the joints. There are various other skin disorders associated with RA but the most common among them are atrophy around the affected joints and extreme thinning of the skin which is also known as rice paper skin.
When RA attacks the lungs it causes the formation of abnormal fibrous growths (fibrosis) in the shape of nodules. Additionally, the affected lungs fill with excessive fluids (pleural effusions); a condition which disrupts the normal respiratory functions.
When the kidneys are affected by RA it is a condition known as renal amyloidosis and it is characterized by abnormal amounts of proteins deposited in the kidneys. This condition can ultimately lead to the kidney disease known as membranous nephropathy.
Patients with RA are at heightened risk of cardiovascular problems such as atherosclerosis, heart attacks (myocardial infarction) and strokes, as well as pericarditis, endocarditis, left ventricular failure, valvulitis and fibrosis.
The eyes affected by RA due to lymphocyte infiltration leads to severe dryness. When such dryness is left untreated it can lead to blindness.
Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis
No cure has yet been found for rheumatoid arthritis but there are countless treatments which help relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. The main focus is to keep the patient as comfortable as possible and to prevent or delay destruction of the joints.
Drug therapies include cortisone, disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), anti-inflammatory agents and analgesics.
Lifestyle and alternative therapies may include occupational and physical therapies, hot and cold compresses and baths, weight control, daily exercise routines particularly swimming as well as good nutrition.