Sunday, November 1, 2009

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints. It has several special features that make it different from other kinds of arthritis. For example, it generally occurs in a symmetrical pattern, meaning that if one knee or hand is involved, the other one also is. Rheumatoid arthritis often affects the wrist joints and the finger joints closest to the hand.

Scientists estimate that about 2.1 million people, or between 0.5 percent and 1 percent of the U.S. adult population, have rheumatoid arthritis. Interestingly, some recent studies have suggested that the overall number of new cases may actually be going down. Scientists are investigating why this may be happening.
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs in all races and ethnic groups. Although the disease often begins in middle age and occurs with increased frequency in older people, children and young adults also develop it. Like some other forms of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis occurs much more frequently in women than in men. About two to three times as many women as men have the disease.

Based on recent research, it is believed that the main rheumatoid arthritis causes may be linked to a combination of:
  • Genetic factors
  • Environmental factors
  • Hormones.

Genetic (Inherited) Factors
About 10 percent of people with rheumatoid arthritis have a first-degree relative with the disease. This suggests that genetics plays a role in the cause of the disease. Rheumatoid arthritis research scientists have also discovered that certain genes known to play a role in the immune system are associated with a tendency to develop rheumatoid arthritis. Some people with rheumatoid arthritis do not have these particular genes; and still others have these genes but never develop the disease.
These somewhat contradictory data suggest that a person's genetic makeup plays an important role in determining if he or she will develop rheumatoid arthritis, but that it is not the only factor. What is clear, however, is that more than one gene is involved in determining whether a person develops rheumatoid arthritis and how severe the disease will become.

Environmental Factors
As with other autoimmune diseases, many scientists think that something must occur to trigger the disease process in people whose genetic makeup makes them susceptible to rheumatoid arthritis. A viral or bacterial infection appears likely, but the exact agent is not yet known. Given that rheumatoid arthritis occurs all over the world, it is thought that this organism must be everywhere. Scientists have studied bacteria such as mycoplasmas, as well as viruses such as cytomegalovirus, parvovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, and the rubella virus. However, to date there have been no convincing data to show that these viruses can cause rheumatoid arthritis.
Also, keep in mind that this does not mean that rheumatoid arthritis is contagious; a person cannot catch the disease from someone else.

Some scientists also think that a variety of hormonal factors may be a possible rheumatoid arthritis cause. This is based on the fact that women are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than men, pregnancy may improve the disease, and the disease may flare after a pregnancy. Hormones, or possibly deficiencies or changes in certain hormones, may promote the development of rheumatoid arthritis in a genetically susceptible person who has been exposed to a triggering agent from the environment.

Final Thoughts on the Rheumatoid Arthritis Causes

Even though researchers do not have all the answers or know the exact cause or causes of rheumatoid arthritis, one thing is certain: rheumatoid arthritis develops due to a combination of many factors. Researchers are trying to understand these factors and how they work together.

Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

In about two out of every three people, early symptoms are pretty vague. These symptoms can include things such as:
  • Fatigue
  • Occasional fevers
  • A general sense of not feeling well
  • A decreased appetite.
These early symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may continue for weeks or months before joint symptoms begin, making a diagnosis quite difficult.
About one in every three people will have early symptoms that affect one or two joints. About 10 percent of people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis will have a very rapid progression, with early symptoms that involve multiple joints along with fever, enlarged lymph nodes, and an enlarged spleen.

Joint Symptoms

For a person with rheumatoid arthritis, symptoms that affect the joints usually differ from other forms of arthritis. Within the affected joints, common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:
  • Tender, warm, and swollen joints
  • Pain that is worse with movement
  • A decrease in motion
  • A symmetrical pattern affecting both the right and left sides of the body
  • Pain and stiffness lasting for more than 30 minutes in the morning or after a long rest.

Other Symptoms

As rheumatoid arthritis progresses, a person may develop other symptoms outside of the joint. Some of these other rheumatoid arthritis symptoms may include:
  • Rheumatoid nodules, which are small lumps. These can occur under your skin at pressure points. They can occur anywhere, but some common areas for rheumatoid nodules include the elbow, wrist, Achilles tendon, and the back of the head.

  • Loss of strength in the muscles that surround the affected joints.

  • Dry eyes and mouth.

  • Anemia, which is a decrease in the production of red blood cells.

  • Very rarely, inflammation of the blood vessels, the lining of the lungs, or the sac enclosing the heart.

Progression of Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

Rheumatoid arthritis affects people differently. For some people with rheumatoid arthritis, symptoms last only a few months or a year or two and go away without causing any noticeable damage. Other people have mild or moderate forms of the disease, with periods of worsening symptoms (called flares) and periods in which they feel better (called remissions). Others may have a severe form of rheumatoid arthritis that is active most of the time, lasts for many years or a lifetime, and leads to serious joint damage and disability.

Diagnosing Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages for several reasons. First, there is no single test for the disease. In addition, symptoms differ from person to person and can be more severe in some people than in others. Also, symptoms can be similar to those of other types of arthritis and joint conditions, and it may take some time for other conditions to be ruled out.
Finally, the full range of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms develops over time, and only a few signs may be present in the early stages.

To help in diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis and to rule out other conditions, healthcare providers use a variety of tools. These include:
  • Medical history
  • Physical examination
  • Laboratory tests
  • X rays

Medical History
The medical history is the patient's description of symptoms and when and how they began. Good communication between the patient and healthcare provider is especially important here. For example, the patient's description of pain, stiffness, and joint function, and how these change over time is critical to the healthcare provider's initial assessment of the disease and how it progresses.

Physical Examination
The physical exam includes the doctor's examination of the joints, skin, reflexes, and muscle strength.

Laboratory Tests
There is no one single test that a healthcare provider can use to make a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, so he or she will use a combination of tests. One common test is for rheumatoid factor, an antibody (a special protein made by the immune system that normally helps fight foreign substances in the body) that is present eventually in the blood of most people with rheumatoid arthritis.
However, not all people with this condition test positive for rheumatoid factor. This is especially true early in the disease. Also, some people test positive for rheumatoid factor, yet never develop rheumatoid arthritis.
Other common laboratory tests include a white blood cell count, a blood test for anemia, and a test of the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (often called the sed rate or ESR), which measures inflammation in the body. C-reactive protein is another common test that measures disease activity.

X-rays are used to determine the degree of joint destruction. They are not useful in the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis before bone damage is evident, but they can be used later to monitor the progression of the disease.

Final Thoughts

Diagnosing and treating rheumatoid arthritis requires a team effort involving the patient and several types of healthcare professionals. A person can go to his or her family doctor, an internist, or a rheumatologist to seek medical attention. A rheumatologist is a doctor who specializes in arthritis and other diseases of the joints, bones, and muscles.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment

Healthcare providers use a variety of approaches when treating rheumatoid arthritis. These approaches are used in different combinations and at different times during the course of the disease, and are chosen according to the person's individual situation. No matter what types of treatment the healthcare provider and patient choose, however, the goals are the same:
  • Relieving pain
  • Decreasing inflammation
  • Slowing down or stopping joint damage
  • Improving a person's sense of well-being and ability to function.
Current treatment options for rheumatoid arthritis include:
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Medications
  • Surgery
  • Routine monitoring and ongoing care.
Keep in mind that good communication between the patient and healthcare providers is necessary for effective rheumatoid arthritis treatment. Talking to the healthcare providers can help ensure that exercise and pain management programs are provided as needed and that drugs are prescribed appropriately. Ultimately, however, successful treatment begins with you. Studies have shown that patients who are well-informed and participate actively in their own care have less pain and make fewer visits to the doctor than do other patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Lifestyle Changes

As part of treating rheumatoid arthritis, certain activities can help improve a person's ability to function independently and maintain a positive outlook. These activities can include:
  • Rest and exercise
  • Joint care
  • Stress reduction
  • Helpful diet
  • Climate.
Rest and Exercise
People with rheumatoid arthritis need a good balance between rest and exercise, with more rest when the disease is active and more exercise when it is not. Rest helps to reduce active joint inflammation and pain and to fight fatigue. While the length of time needed for rest will vary from person to person, shorter rest breaks every now and then are generally more helpful than long times spent in bed.
Exercise is important for maintaining healthy and strong muscles, preserving joint mobility, and maintaining flexibility. Exercise can also help people sleep well, reduce pain, maintain a positive attitude, and lose weight. Exercise programs should be planned and executed based on the person's physical abilities, limitations, and changing needs.

Joint Care
Some people find using a splint for a short time around a painful joint reduces pain and swelling by supporting the joint and letting it rest. Splints are used mostly on wrists and hands, but may also be used on ankles and feet. A doctor or a physical or occupational therapist can help a person choose a splint and make sure it fits properly. Other ways to reduce stress on joints include self-help devices (for example, zipper pullers, long-handled shoe horns, etc.); devices to help with getting on and off chairs, toilet seats, and beds; and changes in the ways that a person carries out daily activities.

Stress Reduction
People with rheumatoid arthritis face emotional challenges as well as physical ones. The emotions they feel because of the disease (including fear, anger, and frustration) combined with any pain and physical limitations can increase their stress level. Although there is no evidence that stress plays a role in causing rheumatoid arthritis, it can make living with the disease difficult at times. Stress may also affect the amount of pain a person feels. There are a number of successful techniques for coping with stress. Regular rest periods can help, as can relaxation, distraction, or visualization exercises. Exercise programs, participation in support groups, and good communication with the healthcare team are other ways to reduce stress.

Healthful Diet
With the exception of several specific types of oils, there is no scientific evidence that any specific food or nutrient helps or harms people with rheumatoid arthritis. However, an overall nutritious diet with enough -- but not excessive quantities of -- calories, protein, and calcium is important.
Some people may need to be careful about drinking alcoholic beverages because of the medications they take for rheumatoid arthritis. Those taking methotrexate may need to avoid alcohol altogether, since one of the most serious long-term side effects of methotrexate is liver damage.

Some people notice that their arthritis gets worse when there is a sudden change in the weather. However, there is no evidence that a specific climate can prevent or reduce the effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Moving to a new place with a different climate usually does not make a long-term difference in a person's rheumatoid arthritis.

Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis With Medications

For most people who have rheumatoid arthritis, treatment also involves taking medications. Some rheumatoid arthritis medicines are used only for pain relief, while others are used to reduce inflammation. There is also another class of medications, often called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), that is used to try to slow down the course of the disease.
Some important factors for deciding which medication is most appropriate as part of a treatment plan for rheumatoid arthritis include the:
  • Person's general condition
  • Current and predicted severity of the illness
  • Length of time he or she will take the drug
  • Drug's effectiveness and potential side effects.

Biologic response modifiers are new drugs that are used in rheumatoid arthritis treatment. They can help reduce inflammation and structural damage to the joints by blocking the action of cytokines, proteins in the body's immune system that trigger inflammation during normal immune responses. Three of these drugs -- etanercept (Enbrel®), infliximab(Remicade®), and adalimumab (Humira®) -- reduce inflammation by blocking the reaction of TNF-alpha molecules. Another drug, calledanakinra (Kineret®), works by blocking a protein called interleukin 1 (IL-1) that is seen in excess in people with rheumatoid arthritis.Abatacept (Orencia®) is a new biologic response modifier that seems to prevent T cells from becoming active. T cells are a type of white blood cell (leukocytes) that play an important role in rheumatoid arthritis.
For many years, healthcare providers initially prescribed aspirin or other pain-relieving drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, as well as rest and physical therapy. Other more powerful drugs were prescribed only if the disease worsened.
Today, however, many healthcare providers have changed their approach, especially for people with severe, rapidly progressing rheumatoid arthritis. Studies show that early treatment for rheumatoid arthritis with more powerful drugs and the use of drug combinations instead of one medication alone may be more effective at reducing or preventing joint damage. Once the disease improves or is in remission, the healthcare provider may gradually reduce the dosage or prescribe a milder medication.


Several types of surgery are available for people with severe joint damage. The primary purpose of these procedures is to reduce pain, improve the affected joint's function, and improve the person's ability to perform daily activities.
Surgery is not for everyone, however, and the decision should be made only after careful consideration by the patient and healthcare provider. Together, they should discuss the person's overall health, the condition of the joint or tendon that will be operated on, and the reason for, as well as the risks and benefits of, the surgical procedure. Cost may be another factor.
Some surgical procedures that are commonly performed to treat rheumatoid arthritis include:
  • Joint replacement
  • Tendon reconstruction
  • Synovectomy.

Joint Replacement
This is the most frequently performed surgery for treating rheumatoid arthritis, and it is done primarily to relieve pain and improve or preserve joint function. Artificial joints are not always permanent and may eventually have to be replaced. This may be an important consideration for young people.

Tendon Reconstruction
Rheumatoid arthritis can damage and even rupture tendons, the tissues that attach muscle to bone. Tendon reconstruction is a type of surgery used most frequently on the hands, and it reconstructs the damaged tendon by attaching an intact tendon to it. This procedure can help to restore hand function, especially if the tendon is completely ruptured.

In this surgery, the healthcare provider actually removes the inflamed synovial tissue. Synovectomy by itself is seldom performed now because not all of the tissue can be removed, and it eventually grows back. Synovectomy is done as part of reconstructive surgery, especially tendon reconstruction.

Routine Monitoring and Ongoing Care

Regular medical care is important to monitor the course of the disease, determine the effectiveness and any negative effects of medications, and change therapies as needed. Monitoring typically includes regular visits to the doctor. It also may include blood, urine, and other laboratory tests and x-rays.
People with rheumatoid arthritis may want to discuss preventing osteoporosis with their healthcare provider as part of their long-term, ongoing care. Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones become weakened and fragile. Having rheumatoid arthritisincreases the risk of developing osteoporosis for both men and women, particularly if a person takes corticosteroids. Such people may want to talk with their healthcare provider about the potential benefits of calcium and vitamin D supplements, hormone therapy, or other treatments for osteoporosis.

Alternative and Complementary Therapies

Special diets, vitamin supplements, and other alternative approaches have been suggested for rheumatoid arthritis treatment. Although many of these approaches may not be harmful in and of themselves, controlled scientific studies either have not been conducted on them or have found no definite benefit to these therapies. Some alternative or complementary approaches may help the person cope or reduce some of the stress associated with living with a chronic illness.
As with any therapy, people should discuss the benefits and drawbacks with their healthcare provider before beginning an alternative or new type of therapy. If he or she feels the approach has value and will not be harmful, it can be incorporated into the treatment plan. However, it is important not to neglect regular healthcare.

As treatment progresses, other professionals often help. These may include:
  • Nurses
  • Physical or occupational therapists
  • Orthopedic surgeons
  • Psychologists
  • Social workers.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment Begins With You

Studies have shown that people who are well-informed and participate actively in their own care have less pain and make fewer visits to the doctor than do other people with rheumatoid arthritis. Patient education and arthritis self-management programs, as well as support groups, help people to become better-informed and to participate in their own care.
Self-management programs teach about rheumatoid arthritis and its treatments, exercise and relaxation approaches, communication between patients and healthcare providers, and problem solving. Rheumatoid arthritis research on these programs has shown that they help people:
  • Understand the disease
  • Reduce their pain while remaining active
  • Cope physically, emotionally, and mentally
  • Feel greater control over the disease and build a sense of confidence in their ability to function and lead full, active, and independent lives.

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