Rheumatoid arthritis awareness week began on the 12th of September. But what exactly is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, so it is very different from osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis is the wearing away of the cartilage at the joints, whereas rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, progressive autoimmune disease. As it is an autoimmune disease, your immune system attacks your body. The immune system attacks the synovium, the membrane lining of joints. When this happens, the synovial cells proliferate, which leads to synovial thickening. This attack on your body causes inflammation, swelling, and pain. It is a systemic disease meaning it can affect the whole body and even internal organs such as the heart and lungs can be susceptible to rheumatoid arthritis as well as the joints. If left untreated the inflammation can invade and eventually destroy the cartilage surrounding the joints. Due to the damage to the cartilage, the tendons and ligaments eventually weaken, which causes the joint to lose shape and causes severe damage.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects 1% of the UK population. It can occur at any age, with cases of idiopathic rheumatoid arthritis occurring in young teenagers. However, it often occurs in people between 40 to 50 years of age. Women are three times more likely to be affected than men. Rheumatoid arthritis is thought to develop due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Smoking and poor diet are linked with rheumatoid arthritis. You may have an increased chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis if you eat a diet that's high in red meat and low in vitamin C.
The main symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. Other symptoms include fatigue and fever. Some patients develop rheumatoid nodules. These are fleshy lumps that develop under the skin near affected joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis is difficult to diagnose as there are many other conditions that mirror the same symptoms. There is no definitive test to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis but a GP will monitor your symptoms and refer you to a specialist, a rheumatologist if deemed necessary. Some blood tests can help in confirming a diagnosis, some tests can measure the levels of inflammation in the body. Another blood test can measure the levels of rheumatoid factors in the blood. These are proteins the immune system makes when it attacks healthy tissues.
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, however certain medications can prevent the worsening of the disease and help ease some symptoms. Physiotherapy may help to improve a patient's fitness, making the joints more flexible and durable. For severe cases, surgery might be an option. Procedures include removing inflamed and damaged joint tissue or joint replacement surgery such as partial or total knee or hip joint replacement.
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