Rheumatoid Arthritis: Symptoms and Remedies
Rheumatoid arthritis is a common, persistent systemic disorder that can cause inflammation of joints throughout the body.
Joints contain a number of structures that allow for ease of movement. The ends of the bones in a joint are protected from rubbing together by an elastic cushioning material, known as cartilage. The entire joint is surrounded by a capsule, known as the synovial sac. A thin layer of tissue (synovial membrane) lines the sac and secretes synovial fluid, which provides lubrication to ease movement.
In the early stage of rheumatoid arthritis, the synovial membrane becomes inflamed and thickened, causing pain and limiting joint movement. As the disease progresses, the cartilage and the ends of the bones erode. The result is severe joint damage and deformity. Joint pain is often preceded by general, nonspecific symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, and loss of appetite. It may also be prefaced by stiffness in the joints, particularly in the morning.
The hallmark of rheumatoid arthritis is involvement of the small joints of the hands and wrists with painful, warm, swollen, tender, and reddish joints. The process can also involve the elbows, shoulders, knees, hips, ankles, feet, and neck.
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis tend to occur symmetrically; that is, joints on both sides of the body are usually affected at the same time. In some cases other organ systems of the body—including the eyes, heart, and lung—may become inflamed too. Symptoms occur in lengthy episodes that may be separated by remission periods of reduced or total absence of pain and stiffness.
Current research suggests that rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder caused by an attack of the immune system on some of the body’s own cells. Rheumatoid arthritis usually develops between the ages of 20 and 50, and its prevalence increases with age. Women are affected approximately three times more frequently than men. Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is aimed at relieving pain and inflammation, preventing joint deformity, and preserving function.
- Early symptoms, preceding obvious joint involvement: fatigue and weakness; low-grade fever; general feeling of poor health; loss of appetite and weight loss.
- Red, swollen, painful joints that may be warm to the touch. With long-term rheumatoid arthritis, joints may become bent and gnarled.
- Stiffness (often the second manifestation of rheumatoid arthritis), especially after awakening in the morning.
- Red, painless skin lumps, known as rheumatoid nodules, on the elbows, knees, or toes.
- Chest pain and breathing difficulty.
- Dry mouth and dry, painful eyes.
- The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown.
- Genetic factors play a role in rheumatoid arthritis.
- Flare-ups of rheumatoid arthritis may be triggered by emotional stress or other concurrent illness.
- There is no known way to prevent rheumatoid arthritis.
- Patient history and physical examination. There is no specific diagnostic test for rheumatoid arthritis; long-term observation of joint changes may be necessary for definitive diagnosis.
- Blood tests for autoimmune rheumatoid factors; anemia may be found in almost half of patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
- X-rays of the affected joints.
- Synovial fluid analysis. Under local anesthetic, synovial fluid is drawn from the affected joint.
- To reduce fever and treat pain, your doctor may prescribe large doses of aspirin, or one of the many other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, nabumetone, or salsalate.
- The current trend is to move patients more rapidly to other, more potent antirheumatic drugs if initial anti-inflammatories fail to control symptoms. Because of potential side effects, rheumatoid arthritis patients receiving such therapy must be closely monitored.
- Hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria, may also be prescribed to relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. The drug’s effects may not be felt for three to six months.
- A solution containing gold salts may be taken orally or injected to reduce inflammation and pain from rheumatoid arthritis.
- Methotrexate, an antimetabolite drug, may be prescribed to subdue the immune system. If symptoms persist, immunosuppressant drugs may be tried.
- Sulfasalazine appears to work by suppressing the immune response that is active in rheumatoid arthritis, and also as an anti-inflammatory agent.
- Minocycline is an antibiotic that acts more as an anti-inflammatory; it has modest benefit in some patients with early rheumatoid arthritis.
- Oral corticosteroids, such as prednisone, offer quick relief from symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Because prednisone has serious side effects when used for extended periods, it is often reserved for severe flare-ups of rheumatoid arthritis or when other treatments are ineffective. Injection of corticosteroids into an affected joint may also be helpful.
- Researchers are developing drugs that target the mechanisms in the disease process and have the potential to prevent joint damage. Recent drug treatment advances include: Leflunomide, an immunomodulator that has antiproliferative activity as well as an anti-inflammatory effect, and etanercept and infliximab, which inhibit the action of tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a naturally occurring substance that is overproduced in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
- Hot or cold compresses may provide pain relief.
- People with rheumatoid arthritis often need over 10 hours of sleep a night, or eight hours a night and a two-hour nap during the day.
- Creams or lotions containing capsaicin may be applied to relieve minor joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis. Those containing camphor, menthol, or turpentine oil may mask pain and provide some relief from minor symptoms.
- Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that bee venom relieves or cures rheumatoid arthritis.
- Splints may be prescribed to relieve pain by immobilizing the joints during severe episodes.
- Your doctor may prescribe an exercise program or may advise you to see a physical therapist. While exercise that is too vigorous may worsen symptoms, such programs outline gentle exercises that can be done to increase the range of motion of the joints.
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