Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a long-term disease that leads to inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues. It can also affect other organs. Rheumatoid Arthritis occurs when your immune system attacks the synovium (the lining of the membranes that surround your joints). The resulting inflammation thickens the synovium, which can eventually invade and destroy the cartilage and bone within the joint. RA is symmetrical, meaning if a joint on one side of the body is affected; the corresponding joint on the other side of the body is also involved. Rheumatoid Arthritis is a chronic disorder, meaning that although there may symptom-free periods, the disease can (and typically does) worsen over time.
The symptoms of RA may include:
- Tender, warm, swollen joints
- Morning stiffness that may last for hours
- Firm bumps of tissue under the skin on your arms (rheumatoid nodules)
- Fatigue, fever and weight loss
- Numbness/tingling in the hands
According to the John Hopkins Arthritis Center, approximately 1-2% of the world’s population is affected by the disease. Prevalence tends to increase with age (approaching 5% in women over 55 years old). The annual average incidence is 70 in every 100,000 in the United States.
Factors that may increase your risk of rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Gender – Women are more likely to develop Rheumatoid Arthritis than men are
- Age – Rheumatoid Arthritis can occur at any age, but it most commonly begins between the ages of 40 and 60
- Heredity – If a member of your family has Rheumatoid Arthritis, you may have an increased risk of the disease
- Smoking – Rheumatoid Arthritis is 4 times more common in smokers than non-smokers
It is also important to note that when people with Rheumatoid Arthritis become less active, they can develop weaker muscles and it can also limit their ability to freely move their joints. Below are a few exercises that may help individuals with rheumatoid arthritis counter these effects.
Flexibility Exercises – Help your muscles stay stretched and keep your joints working their best. They also promote comfortable movement during exercise and other daily activities. Examples are thumb-bend and finger curl, tiptoe and calf stretch.
Strengthening or Resistance Exercises – Help build up muscle necessary for many activities of daily living and promotes strong muscles to help absorb shock and protect your joints. Examples are shoulder shrugs, forward arm reach, and trunk-twist.
Aerobic Exercises – Help your heart, lungs, blood vessels and muscles work better. They can also reduce your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Examples are: walking, bicycling and rowing.
There is no known cure for Rheumatoid Arthritis. The goal of treatment is to reduce joint inflammation and pain, prevent joint damage, and maximize joint function. Aggressive treatment should be started as early as possible. Treatment generally includes a combination of medication and exercises to strengthen supporting muscles around the joints. Treatment may also include surgery. Treatment is tailored to the individual, taking into account their age, affected joints and the progression of the disease itself.
Feelings of stress, anger, and sadness are all normal responses to the life changes that Rheumatoid Arthritis can bring. Dealing with these emotions can be just as critical as managing the physical symptoms. During those times, a support system can be beneficial.
A care manager with Feinberg Consulting can help families dealing with long-term illness and develop a comprehensive plan of care.