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Rheumatoid arthritis

Written by Healthwords's team of doctors and pharmacists based in UK | Updated: 26.01.2023 | 3 min read

Rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term autoimmune disease that leads to chronic pain, stiffness, and swelling of the small joints of your body such as the wrists, hands, and feet. It can also cause more generalised symptoms like tiredness and affect other organs in the body. 

What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

Autoimmune conditions occur when the body attacks its own cells causing inflammation. This can happen in flares and can be difficult to predict, although there may be some common triggers. These can include poor sleep, changes in the treatment medication, infection, or stress on the body. In rheumatoid arthritis, the lining of your joints are affected, causing pain and swelling but this can also lead to erosion of the bone and deformity of the joint leading to severe physical disability. 

You may have more general symptoms like tiredness, poor appetite, and weight loss and it can also affect many organs such as the liver, kidneys, eyes, and skin. 

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition, which is where your immune system attacks its own cells by mistake. In this condition your body attacks the cells that line the joints, leading to the symptoms mentioned above. Those at higher risk are people who smoke, have a family history of rheumatoid arthritis, and women also have a slightly higher risk compared to men.

How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?

Your doctor will take a history and family history from you and they will perform an examination of your joints to assess any swelling, stiffness, or pain. They may arrange blood tests looking at specific inflammatory markers, markers of anaemia and rheumatoid specific markers that are helpful in the diagnosis. Imaging such as X-rays or more detailed MRI scans can be done to look at the joints to assess for any damage.  

How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis but there are ways to manage the symptoms to reduce the frequency of flare-ups that occur. 

Depending on the severity, some home, work, and lifestyle adjustments may need to be made to help you complete everyday tasks. This can be done with the help of an occupational therapist if needed, who can suggest adjustments and devices to help. Physiotherapists are also important team members for keeping your joints supple and active. 

Painkillers are usually taken with acute flares to manage the symptoms and swelling like ibuprofen or steroids, but long-term medication is often needed to help slow down the disease process and reduce the number of flare-ups. That is why early diagnosis is better, to reduce the chances of permanent damage. Long-term medication is divided into two classes known as; DMARDs (disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs) and biologics. 

DMARDs (a common example being methotrexate) work on the chemicals released when your immune system attacks itself. These drugs block the immune system's damaging effects and reduce further damage from occurring. Biologics are given by injection either in combination with DMARDs or if DMARDs have not been effective. They work earlier in the process by stopping some of the chemicals that activate an immune response.

In some instances, if there is any significant joint damage, surgery may be considered to correct or improve the movement of the joint. 

Related topics

Read about Bursitis

Read about Polymyalgia rheumatica

Read about Neck pain

Read about Osteoarthritis

Read about Arthritis

Read about Gout

Read about Shoulder pain: when to do something about it

Read about Arthroscopy (keyhole surgery)

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