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An autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis or RA is a kind of arthritis that causes the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack normal, healthy cells of the joints. Sadly, rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition with no known cure as of yet. Hence, early diagnosis becomes extremely crucial for timely disease control to prevent further damage to joints that will eventually lead to disability.
This inflammatory condition begins slowly, bringing on symptoms that can easily be mistaken for something else. As the disease progresses, the inflammation it causes in the tissue which lines the joint (also known as synovium) eventually wears down the cartilage and damages the bone which make up the joint over time. Rheumatoid arthritis usually targets the joints in:
RA usually follows a symmetrical pattern, wherein the same joints are affected on both sides of the body, for example both the wrists, knees or hips.
Unlike osteoarthritis (where risks of the condition increase with age), rheumatoid arthritis can strike at any age. Although, it’s more commonly seen in patients over the age of 30. However, it can affect children and adolescents too.
The symptoms of RA vary from one person to another. For some, the symptoms are monocyclic – meaning they occur a one off time and then stay dormant for 2-5 years. For others, the symptoms are polycyclic, meaning that they fluctuate and keep getting worse or better for no apparent reason, while in some, the disease can be progressive – meaning they get worse with time.
What’s worrisome is that in some patients, rheumatoid arthritis can go undiagnosed for years. It’s imperative to spot the symptoms in the early stages of the disease in order to get the right treatment before it causes irreparable damage to affected joints.
A plethora of things can make you feel extremely tired, and fatigue happens to be one of the first early signs of rheumatoid arthritis. Chronic inflammation in joints leads to lack of energy, making you feel more tired than ever.
The fatigue brought on by RA, which can sometimes begin long before other symptoms even become apparent, lead to poor appetite and weight loss.
When the tissue around the joint is inflamed, it leads to stiffness. Unlike osteoarthritis wherein it’s common to wake up with joint stiffness but it doesn’t last very long, stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis can last for several hours. You may notice that your joints feel particularly stiff early in the morning after hours of rest or post prolonged periods spent in the same position, like sitting at your desk.
The inflammation in the synovium irritates the nerves surrounding the joint, causing tenderness. During early stages, a feeling of discomfort is felt in the area around the joint when external pressure is applied.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease that causes swelling in the joint which is a result of (1) thickening of the tissue (synovium) as well as (2) fluid build-up in the area. This swelling irritates the nerves in the joint capsule, triggering pain.
As the disease progresses, joint stiffness and swelling leads to joint pain. Since the joint is inflamed, cartilage is gradually destroyed, causing narrowing of the joint space and the eventual damage to bone, all of which cause pain. The joint may hurt while in motion, as well as during rest. Fingers and wrists are common sites for pain in early RA.
Inflammation in the joint causes redness in the skin around the joint. As capillaries in the skin surrounding the inflammation dilate from the pressure caused by swelling, the area appears red.
Warmth indicates active inflammation in the joint, which makes the skin surrounding the joint feel hot to touch. This may be noticed even when the joint doesn’t seem to be visibly swollen or red.
The inflammation in the synovium exerts extra pressure on the nerves and tendons surrounding the joints. This can cause a tingling or burning sensation. As the disease progresses and the cartilage cushioning the joint starts to wear down, you may even hear crackling sounds when the joint is in motion.
The chronic inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis hinders with the normal pattern of movement in the joint. With the progression of the disease, cartilage wears down and pain intensifies, causing loss in the range of motion. You may find that it’s harder to bend your knees while climbing stairs or to bend your fingers to form a proper grip.
One of the unique things about RA is that it symmetrically affects the same joints on both sides of the body. You may notice pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints of fingers on both hands, or it could be both wrists, knees, elbows or balls of feet.
The problem with chronic inflammation is that it is rarely limited to a specific joint. Several patients diagnosed with RA find that multiple joints are affected at the same time. It is not uncommon for four or more joints to be affected by rheumatoid arthritis, making RA a difficult disease to live with.
The active inflammation in the joint will cause it to swell up. You may notice that the joint in the fingers seem to be enlarged or your knees look thicker. Early detection of rheumatoid arthritis is your best chance against erosion of cartilage and joint deformity, both of which result in permanent joint destruction.
As the body battles against chronic inflammation, the bone marrow produces fewer red blood cells. This can lead to anaemia in active rheumatoid arthritis. The good news: This symptom will resolve as the inflammation goes down with the right treatment plan.
Chronic inflammation is often accompanied by a low-grade fever, which is one of the early warning signs of rheumatoid arthritis. If your body temperature is up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) but you’re showing no other signs of infection in the body, RA could very well be the reason behind it. However, if your fever goes up, it’s probably caused by some other underlying illness.
If you are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, your best treatment plan will involve lifestyle changes coupled with alternative therapies to help manage the inflammation and pain. We highly recommend an anti-inflammatory diet to treat this condition. By eliminating foods that cause inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis, you may just lessen your dependence on pain medication! Also, add more probiotics to your diet as these fight chronic low levels of inflammation. It’s worth mentioning that while you’re modifying your diet, you should also consider adding supplements to your diet to ease your arthritis pain naturally.