Rheumatoid arthritis: Symptoms and causes

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Overview of Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that can affect more than just your joints. In some people, the condition also can damage a wide variety of body systems, including the skin, eyes, lungs, heart and blood vessels.
An autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body’s tissues.

Unlike the wear-and-tear damage of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of your joints, causing a painful swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.

The inflammation associated with it is what can damage other parts of the body as well. While new types of medications have improved treatment options dramatically, severe rheumatoid arthritis can still cause physical disabilities.

Symptoms and causes of  Rheumatoid arthritis

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms  may include:

  • Tender, warm, swollen joints
  • Joint stiffness that is usually worse in the mornings and after inactivity
  • Fatigue, fever and weight loss

Early rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect your smaller joints first — particularly the joints that attach your fingers to your hands and your toes to your feet.

As the disease progresses, symptoms often spread to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders. In most cases, symptoms occur in the same joints on both sides of your body.

About 40 percent of the people who have such disease also experience signs and symptoms that don’t involve the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect many non-joint structures, including:

  • Skin
  • Eyes
  • Lungs
  • Heart
  • Kidneys
  • Salivary glands
  • Nerve tissue
  • Bone marrow
  • Blood vessels

Rheumatoid arthritis signs and symptoms may vary in severity and may even come and go. Periods of increased disease activity, called flares, alternate with periods of relative remission — when the swelling and pain fade or disappear. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joints to deform and shift out of place.

When to see a doctor about Rheumatoid arthritis

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have persistent discomfort and swelling in your joints.

Causes

Arthritis occurs when your immune system attacks the synovium — the lining of the membranes that surround your joints.

The resulting inflammation thickens the synovium, which can eventually destroy the cartilage and bone within the joint.

The tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together weaken and stretch. Gradually, the joint loses its shape and alignment.

Doctors don’t know what starts this process, although a genetic component appears likely. While your genes don’t actually cause rheumatoid arthritis, they can make you more susceptible to environmental factors — such as infection with certain viruses and bacteria — that may trigger the disease.
Risk factors behind Rheumatoid arthritis

Factors that may increase your risk of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Your sex. Women are more likely than men to develop rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Age. Rheumatoid  can occur at any age, but it most commonly begins between the ages of 40 and 60.
  • Family history. If a member of your family has rheumatoid arthritis, you may have an increased risk of the disease.
  • Smoking. Cigarette smoking increases your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, particularly if you have a genetic predisposition for developing the disease. Smoking also appears to be associated with greater disease severity.
  • Environmental exposures. Although uncertain and poorly understood, some exposures such as asbestos or silica may increase the risk for developing such disease. Emergency workers exposed to dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center are at higher risk of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Obesity. People who are overweight or obese appear to be at somewhat higher risk of
    developing rheumatoid arthritis, especially in women diagnosed with the disease when they were 55 or younger.

Complications

  • Osteoporosis.  along with some medications used for treating rheumatoid arthritis, can increase your risk of osteoporosis — a condition that weakens your bones and makes them more prone to fracture.
  •  Rheumatoid nodules. These firm bumps of tissue most commonly form around pressure points, such as the elbows. However, these nodules can form anywhere in the body, including the lungs.
  • Dry eyes and mouth. People who have  arthritis are much more likely to experience Sjogren’s syndrome, a disorder that decreases the amount of moisture in your eyes and mouth.
  • Infections. The disease itself and many of the medications used to combat rheumatoid arthritis can impair the immune system, leading to increased infections.
  • Abnormal body composition. The proportion of fat compared to lean mass is often higher in people who have rheumatoid arthritis, even in people who have a normal body mass index (BMI).
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome. If rheumatoid arthritis affects your wrists, the inflammation can compress the nerve that serves most of your hand and fingers.
  • Heart problems.  arthritis can increase your risk of hardened and blocked arteries, as well as inflammation of the sac that encloses your heart.
  • Lung disease. People with  arthritis have an increased risk of inflammation and scarring of the lung tissues, which can lead to progressive shortness of breath.
  • Lymphoma.  increases the risk of lymphoma, a group of blood cancers
    that develop in the lymph system.

    Lifestyle and home remedies

    You can take steps to care for your body if you have rheumatoid arthritis. These self-care measures, when used along with your rheumatoid arthritis medications, can help you manage
    your signs and symptoms:
  • Exercise regularly. Gentle exercise can help strengthen the muscles around your joints, and it can help fight fatigue you might feel.
  • Check with your doctor before you start exercising. If you’re just getting started, begin by taking a walk. Try swimming or gentle water aerobics. Avoid exercising tender, injured or severely inflamed joints.
  • Apply heat or cold. Heat can help ease your pain and relax tense, painful muscles. Cold may dull the sensation of pain. Cold also has a numbing effect and decreases muscle spasms.
  • Relax. Find ways to cope with pain by reducing stress in your life. Techniques such as guided imagery, distraction and muscle relaxation can all be used to control pain.

    Coping and support

    The pain and disability associated with rheumatoid arthritis can affect a person’s work and family life. Depression and anxiety are common, as are feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem.
    The degree to which it affects your daily activities depends in part on how well you cope with the disease. Talk to your doctor or nurse about strategies for coping. With time you’ll learn what strategies work best for you. In the meantime, try to:

  • Take control. With your doctor, make a plan for managing your arthritis. This will help you feel in charge of your disease.
  • Know your limits. Rest when you’re tired. it can make you prone to fatigue and muscle weakness. A rest or short nap that doesn’t interfere with nighttime sleep may help.
  • Connect with others. Keep your family aware of how you’re feeling. They may be worried about you but might not feel comfortable asking about your pain. Find a family member or friend you can talk to when you’re feeling especially overwhelmed. Also connect with other people who have the inflammatory disorder  — whether through a support group in your community or online.
  • Take time for yourself. It’s easy to get busy and not take time for yourself. Find time for what you like, whether it’s time to write in a journal, go for a walk or listen to music. Use this time to relieve stress and reflect on your feelings.
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