Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease that primarily affects the joints, causing inflammation, pain, stiffness, and swelling. It occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium, the lining of the joints, leading to inflammation and the gradual destruction of cartilage and bone. RA can also affect other tissues and organs, such as the skin, lungs, heart, and blood vessels. The disease is more common in women and usually begins between the ages of 30 and 60.
The exact cause of RA is not fully understood, but it is believed to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors that trigger an inappropriate immune response. Some risk factors for developing RA include a family history of the disease, smoking, and certain genetic markers, such as the HLA-DRB1 gene.
The symptoms of RA can vary in severity and may include:
- Joint pain, swelling, and stiffness, particularly in the small joints of the hands and feet.
- Morning stiffness lasting more than 30 minutes.
- Symmetrical joint involvement, meaning both sides of the body are affected.
- Fatigue, fever, and weight loss.
There is no cure for RA, but various treatments are available to help manage the symptoms, reduce inflammation, and slow down the progression of the disease. These include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These medications, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, can help reduce pain and inflammation.
- Corticosteroids: These drugs, such as prednisone, provide rapid relief from inflammation and pain but can have significant side effects when used long-term.
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These medications, such as methotrexate, hydroxychloroquine, and sulfasalazine, work by suppressing the immune system and slowing down the progression of RA.
- Biologic agents: These are a newer class of DMARDs, including tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors (e.g., adalimumab, etanercept, and infliximab), interleukin-6 (IL-6) inhibitors (e.g., tocilizumab), and other targeted therapies (e.g., abatacept, rituximab). Biologic agents work by targeting specific components of the immune system involved in the inflammatory process.
- Physical and occupational therapy: These therapies can help improve joint function, reduce pain, and maintain mobility and independence.
- Surgery: In severe cases, joint replacement surgery or other surgical procedures may be necessary to restore function and relieve pain.
Early diagnosis and treatment of RA are essential to help prevent joint damage and improve long-term outcomes. If you suspect you may have RA or are experiencing persistent joint pain and stiffness, consult a healthcare professional for evaluation and appropriate treatment.