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Rheumatoid Arthritis

by Charlene J. Nuble

A shooting pain in the knee. A burning sensation in the hand. Before you know it, you have rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammation of the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks normal tissues as if they were invading antibodies. Rheumatoid arthritis also causes inflammation of the tissues around the joints and other organs of the body. The hands and feet are the most affected areas of rheumatoid arthritis although it can also affect any joint lined by a membrane. Rheumatoid arthritis is referred to as a systematic illness and sometimes called rheumatoid disease.

Rheumatoid arthritis manifests itself over a period of a few months. However, for some, the disease appears overnight. Accelerated onset of rheumatoid arthritis does not mean the individual is at greater risk of the progression of the disease. Rheumatoid arthritis can lasts for years without symptoms. But rheumatoid arthritis is an illness that progresses and has the potential to cause joint destrution and functional disability. Usually, patients suffer cycles from severe to light symptoms. In terms of statistics, rheumatoid arthritis is three times more common in women than in men. It also besets people of all races equally. Rheumatoid arthritis can begin at any age but most often start in the early forties.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis? The truth is, its cause is still unknown. Viruses, bacteria, and fungi have long been suspected but none has been proven to be the cause. The cause of rheumatoid arthritis has been the focus of different research activities. There are some scientists who believe that the tendency to develop rheumatoid arthritis may be genetically inherited while others believe that certain factors in the environment might elicit the immune system to attack the body's own tissue components. This attack results to the inflammation in various organs such as lungs or eyes.

Researchers have also found that environmental factors may also play a role in the cause of rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, scientists reported that smoking tobacco increases risk in the development of rheumatoid arthritis.

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis depend on the degree of tissue inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis is said to be active if the body tissues are inflammed. When the tissue inflammation subsides, rheumatoid arthritis is said to be in remission. Remissions may happen spontaneously or with treatment and can last for weeks, months, even years. During active rheumatoid arthritis, symptoms are felt. Symptoms may include fatigue, lack of appetite, low grade fever, and muscles and joint aches. Muscles and joint stiffness are usually felt during mornings and after a period of inactivity. During relapses (from inactivity to activity) of rheumatoid arthritis, joints become red, swollen, painful, and tender. This happens because the tissue lining of the joints become inflamed which results in the excess production of joint fluids.

Multiple joints are usually inflamed in symmetrical pattern and the joints of both hands and wrists are often affected. Simple tasks such as turning the door knob and opening the jars can be painful. Rheumatoid arthritis can also affect the joint responsible for the tightening of vocal cords to change the tone of the voice although rarely. But when this happens, it can cause hoarseness of the voice.

As mentioned before, rheumatoid arthritis is a systematic disease which can affect organs and areas of the body other than the joints. Sjorgen's syndrome is the inflammation of the glands of the eyes and mouth which causes dryness. Rheumatoid inflammation of the lung lining can cause chest pains because the lung tissue itself is inflamed and nodules of inflammation also develop within the lungs. Rheumatoid arthritis can also reduce the number of red blood cells which can result to anemia and white blood cells which can result to increase risk of infections. A rare, serious complication of rheumatoid arthritis is blood vessel inflammation which can impair blood supply to tissues and lead to death of tissues.

A rheumatologist is a doctor who specializes in arthritis and other related diseases. The rheumatologist reviews the history of symptoms, examines the joints, and the other parts of the body for the inflammation. The diagnosis is usually based on the pattern of symptoms, the distribution of the inflamed joints, and the blood and x-rays obtained.

Until now, there is no known cure for rheumatoid arthritis. Reducing joint inflammation and pain, maximizing joint function, and preventing joint destruction is the current goal in treating rheumatoid arthritis. Early medical intervention has been found to improve outcomes in treatment. Optimal treatment includes combination of medications, joint strengthening exercises, joint protection, and patient education. Treatment is customized according to many factors such as disease activity, types of joints involved, general health, age, and occupation. But treatment is most successful when there is close cooperation between the doctor and the patient.

About the author:
Charlene J. Nuble 2005

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