Rheumatoid Arthritis: An Overview

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic disease that causes inflammation of the lining of the joints, especially in the fingers. Symptoms include red, swollen, painful joints, and reduced mobility and flexibility.

RA is caused by an autoimmune response. This means that the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks the joints, as if they’re some harmful foreign substance. There’s no cure for RA, and because it’s a progressive disease, symptoms typically worsen. However, there are a number of effective treatments, and proper treatment is critical to managing the progression of RA.

Long-Term Effects

Effects on the Joints

As RA progresses, it can cause pain and inflammation to other joints in the body, such as:

  • wrists, elbows, and shoulders
  • ankles, knees, and hips
  • the spaces between the vertebrae in the spine
  • the ribcage

If left untreated, the long-term damage to the joints can be tremendous. Fibrous tissue may form around the joints, and bones may fuse together. This can cause deformity and a loss of mobility. Of course, with the hands being the most commonly affected, this loss of mobility can cause serious issues with quality of life.

Other Complications

When RA isn’t properly treated, serious complications can develop in the major organs, including the skin, heart, lungs, and kidneys. 

Effects on the skin

The same immune response that attacks the lining of the joints can also impact the skin. Rashes are common in those with untreated RA, as are blisters and lumps of tissue under the skin called nodules.

Cardiovascular effects

People with uncontrolled RA may have inflammation that spreads to the blood vessels, causing them to narrow. This can lead to blockages and clots in the arteries and smaller blood vessels. These blockages can double your chances of having a heart attack or stroke. RA can also lead to pericarditis, or inflammation of the membrane that surrounds the heart.

Lung problems

Lung problems that result from untreated RA include:

  • Scar tissue that develops over time due to long-term inflammation. This tissue can trigger breathing difficulties, chronic cough, fatigue, and suppressed appetite.
  • Rheumatoid nodules in the lungs, similar to those that appear under the skin, can also develop. Occasionally, these nodules rupture, which could cause a lung to collapse.
  • Pleural disease is another possible complication. This disease is the inflammation of the pleura, the tissue that surrounds the lungs. Fluid can also build up between the layers of the pleura, leading to breathing difficulties and pain.

Effects on the kidneys

Research has shown that those with RA have about a one-in-four chance of developing kidney disease. There seems to be a combination effect of inflammation, medication side effects, and other contributing factors causing the kidney problems. Because of this, it’s important that your doctor monitor your kidney function regularly.

Your RA Treatment Plan

As soon as you’re diagnosed with RA, your doctor will likely prescribe a type of medication called DMARDs, or disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs. These drugs, which include newer biologic medications, can be extremely effective at slowing or even stopping the progression of RA.

Other treatments your doctor may recommend include additional prescription drugs, over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or naproxen, and regular exercise or physical therapy.

Staying on Track

With so many potential complications from RA, the importance of staying on track with your treatment plan is clear. If you have questions or concerns about any aspects of your treatment, be sure and discuss them with your doctor. Open lines of communication between you and each of your healthcare providers can help ensure successful treatment of your RA, and a better quality of life for you.