What is it?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a condition in which the joints of the body are persistently painful and swollen (inflamed). It is a very common disease worldwide, with black Africans and Chinese being the least commonly affected.
It happens because of a problem with your immune system causing it to attack the joints instead of foreign bodies. It is thought that genetic factors and environmental factors (such as cigarette smoking) play a role in both the occurence and severity of rheumatoid arthritis.
What are the symptoms?
The typical symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are pain, joint swelling and stiffness affecting the small joints of the hands, feet and wrists. The pain and stiffness are often worse on waking up from sleep or just after sitting still for a while, and get better with movement.
Large joint involvement and affectation of tissues outside the joints may also occur. Some people get swellings or lumps under their skin. These can happen on the back of the elbows or finger joints.
Loss of appetite, weight loss and fatigue ae also common. Dry eyes may also occur. Numbness, tingling or burning sensations may also occur in the hands and feet.
The symptoms would have persisted for more than 6 weeks before the doctor says one has rheumatoid arthritis.
What treatments work?
Physical rest, passive exercises and therapy targeted against inflammation are the mainstays of management of rheumatoid arthritis. These won’t cure the arthritis, but it can help with pain and protect the joints.
Drugs that protect the joints are called disease-modifying drugs. The doctor will choose the most appropriate of these and may prescribe several of them together.
Low doses of corticosteroids can help to reduce the pain and swelling of rheumatoid arthritis in the short term. A lot of the drugs that protect the joints also help with pain. But the doctor can also prescribe painkillers if you need them.
There are other ways of coping with pain, such as a warm bath or shower, and wrapping an ice pack in a towel and putting it on the joint.
Appropriate exercise such as swimming can help with pain and stiffness. A physiotherapist can help find suitable exercises.
There is no proof that any special kinds of foods or supplements work for rheumatoid arthritis. So you may not want to spend a lot of money on them.
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What will happen to me?
For some people, the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are always fairly mild. However, most people go on to get more severe symptoms.
By and large, a poorer outcome is usually associated with disability at presentation, female gender, involvement of the small joints of the foot, smoking, and some positive lab results which the doctor will explain.