Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) primarily affects the synovium, the membrane that lines and lubricates a joint. It is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis.
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis at present. Until the cause of RA is known, it will not be possible to eliminate the disease entirely. The goals of current treatment methods, therefore, are to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, stop or slow down joint damage, and improve function and patient well-being.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms
Initial symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are generally pain and stiffness in the morning and few symptoms with activity. The pain and swelling will usually progress on to obvious joint swelling and the level of stiffness in the morning increases. Other symptoms include fatigue and difficulty sleeping due to joint stiffness.
Rheumatoid arthritis can be distinguished from other forms of arthritis by the location and number of joints involved. The areas affected include the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands, especially the joints at the base and middle of the fingers but not the joints at the end of the fingers. In the lower extremities, RA can affect the hips, knees, ankles, and the joints at the base of the toes. RA tends to spare the low back. The joints affected tend to be involved in a symmetrical pattern. That is, if knuckles on the right hand are inflamed, it is likely that knuckles on the left hand will be inflamed as well. This symmetry is not found as often in most other types of arthritis.
Inflamed joints will be warm, swollen, tender, often red, and painful or difficult to move. These physical signs of arthritis are due to inflammation of the lining of joints and tendons in a layer of tissue that is called synovium. The cells of the immune system within the synovium appear active and capable of causing tissue damage. If this inflammation persists or does not respond well to treatment, destruction of nearby cartilage, bone, tendons, and ligaments can follow. This leads to deformity and disability that can be permanent.
Anyone can get rheumatoid arthritis, including children and the elderly. However, the disease usually begins in the young to middle adult years. Among people with RA, women outnumber men by 3 to 1. In the United States, approximately one percent of the population, or 2.5 million people, have rheumatoid arthritis. It occurs in all ethnic groups and in all parts of the world.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatments
The goals of current RA treatment methods are to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, stop or slow down joint damage, and improve function and patient well-being. There is no single standard treatment that applies to all people with RA. The disease may be very different from person to person. Instead, a treatment program should be designed to best meet each person's needs, taking into account how severe the arthritis is, other medical problems, and individual lifestyle and preferences. Often the use of two or more medications at a time, each serving a distinct purpose, is necessary. Some of these medications affect the immune system, making careful monitoring a requirement for treatment.
Treating rheumatoid arthritis usually involves a teamwork approach, using health professionals from different disciplines to help an individual deal with the disease. Treatment most often is directed and coordinated by an arthritis specialist, who is a physician with special training in arthritis and other diseases of the bones, muscles, and joints. Other health professionals, such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, nurses, psychologists, orthopaedic surgeons, and social workers, often play other roles in implementing the treatment plan.
It often is difficult to be patient when suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. People with rheumatoid arthritis might be tempted to try unproven treatments. A treatment that promises "a quick cure" or "miraculous relief" can sound wonderful. But remember, these unproven treatments usually are expensive and will do nothing. The sensational successes advertised are usually illusions. They even may be harmful and often keep people from getting the medical care they really need. For example, magnet therapy has not been proven to work for rheumatoid arthritis. New or alternative treatments should be discussed with your doctor.
Medical management may include the use of non-steroidal antiinflammatory medication, corticosteroids, injectable gold salts (Myochrysine, Solganal), methotrexate (Rheumatrex), hydroxychloroquine (Plaquinil) and antimalarial drugs, Sulfasalazine (Azulfidine), D-Penicillamine (Depend, Cuprimine), and various other immunosuppressive agents.
Physical therapy treatments are helpful for most individuals with rheumatoid arthritis. Physical therapists can teach you how to exercise appropriately for your physical capabilities. They will give you valuable instruction on how best to use heat and cold treatments to reduce joint stiffness and swelling and make movement easier. At times, therapists may use special machines to apply deep heat or electrical stimulation to reduce pain or improve joint mobility.
Therapists construct splints for the hand and wrist and teach people how to best protect and use their joints when they are affected by arthritis. They also show people how to better cope with day-to-day tasks at work and at home, despite limitations that may be caused by RA. Sometimes this includes the use of practical tools and items that help individuals perform their day-to-day activities. It is important to remember that people with RA can and should be able to do most of the normal or usual things everyone else can, except that it takes them a little bit longer to do it.
For individuals with severe joint damage, surgery such as total joint replacement can mean the difference between being dependent on others and independent life at home or in the community. Such procedures are performed by orthopaedic surgeons with special training in joint replacement. The damaged parts of the joints are replaced with metal or plastic components. Some people with RA will benefit from replacement of other joints and from other types of surgery for hand and foot problems caused by the disease. Patients with early rheumatoid arthritis, however, should be placed on a program of medications and therapy before surgery is considered.