Rheumatoid arthritis is a long lasting disease of the joints. The exact cause is not known, but it is known to be an autoimmune disease. It comes gradually up to the inflammation and the swelling of the synovial joint membrane, which leads to inflammation of the other parts of the joint. If the inflammation persists, the bones connected by the joint are slowly weakening. In severe cases it eventually comes to the destruction of bone tissue. The disease usually affects the small joints of the hands and feet (mainly the fingers), but can also affect knees, ankles, neck, etc.
Disease can occur (although rarely) in the spine or hips, which are prone to arthrosis. In many cases, this disease is not limited to joints only, but also causes a systemic inflammation – for example, heart muscle, blood vessel tissue and subcutaneous tissue.
The disease can begin without visible symptoms in the joint. Over the course of several weeks, or even months, you will start feeling weak, listlessly and starting to lose the appetite. You will probably start to lose weight and feel indeterminate muscle pain. Only after this the joint disorders will appear, which are characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis. However, in other cases, the symptoms occur abruptly. Before or after, the affected joints will be red, swollen, stiffened and will hurt on touch. Stiffness is usually the most prominent in the morning, but as soon as you start stretching, the pain and stiffness usually go away.
Some patients receive occasional bursitis attacks, some become anemic (see anemia article), as well as arthritic. However, the symptoms and degree of disease are very diverse. Only one or two joints may be affected, but the disease can quickly spread. Some people get only one, mild seizure. Others get more seizures, which can cause an increasing degree of disability.
In some cases – although it is important to note that they are relatively rare – due to permanent declining of the joint, deformation of the joints occurs, which makes an active life difficult.
In the UK, approximately one in 200 people suffer from rheumatoid arthritis to a greater or lesser extent. Most of these patients are 40 to 60 years of age. However, the disease may affect people of any age group.
In severe cases, a partial or complete deformation of swollen, deformed joints occurs. This can cause major disturbances and walking difficulties if the disease has affected the knee or ankle joint. Tendons can be weakened, ruptured, and the patient can not handle some movement. If the neck is affected, the mechanism connecting the two upper vertebrae may weaken, resulting in danger of paralysis or death due to severe spinal cord injury. Since the disease may affect the small arteries, there is little potential for the development of blood disorders (see blood flow article).
What to do?
If you notice any visible symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, contact a doctor who will look at your joints and refer you to X-rays and special blood tests. Rheumatoid arthritis is usually recognized by these findings. But, sometimes, the only way to set up a solid diagnosis is to look at the development of the disease on a patient in the course of a couple weeks or even months.
Self-help: it is best to accept the fact that this disease can be permanent. Do not give up, listen to the advice of your physician and physiotherapist, go and attend regular moderate physical activities. Swimming in the hot water pool is useful to stiffened joints. A hard mattress and warm but lightweight covers will give you a comfortable sleep without straining on these joints. Some of the aids available for the disabled can be used at home.
Professional help: if you have a strong rheumatoid arthritis attack, your doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist at a hospital. The main element of the treatment of severe cases is complete inactivity. You will lie in the hospital, where pieces of soft materials will be put on your diseased joints until the symptoms weaken. Then, physiotherapists will take care of you; they will teach you useful exercises and give you cradless that can be bind to the painful joints when they have to rest.
Your doctor will also recommend taking pain medicines. The basic drug will probably be aspirin at high doses. Your doctor will probably have to experiment for a while until you find out which pain relief and / or antiinflammatory drug works best in your case. Many drugs (including aspirin) against rheumatoid arthritis can cause unpleasant side effects, especially in the digestive and / or urinary tract.
Surgical treatment may occasionally help patients with rheumatoid arthritis. In early stages of rheumatoid arthritis, synovectomy is effective (removal of a very inflamed synovial membrane in the joint), but only if just one joint is affected. In later stages, a severely injured joint may sometimes be replaced by artificial. But because of the risk of such surgery, most doctors advise the patient for surgery only in severe cases where other forms of treatment did not help.
As we have already pointed out, rheumatoid arthritis is diverse in view of the strength, duration and prognosis of the disease. The statistics available today show that approximately 45% of all patients recover completely after one or more attacks of painful inflammation of the joints. A further 45% remain arthritic but with a tolerable state of affairs. Only one out of ten people becomes physically disabled.