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Break It Down: Rheumatoid Arthritis (Video Transcript)

Rheumatoid arthritis, also known as RA, is one of the most common forms of arthritis. It usually affects the small joints of the hand, wrist, and feet, leading to pain, stiffness, and sometimes misalignment of joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis is very different from other forms of arthritis, because it’s an autoimmune disease, wherein the body’s defense mechanisms attack healthy tissues.

For most people with Rheumatoid arthritis, the disease is progressive, meaning the symptoms are likely to worsen over time.

Recognizing the Signs:

The early symptoms of Rheumatoid arthritis are generally very mild. Many people may not notice them for several years. Some of the symptoms are not associated with joint pain. Unexplained fevers, loss of appetite, and a general sense of feeling unwell are all common to RA in its early stages.

As the disease progresses, some key symptoms usually emerge. These include:

  • red and swollen painful joints
  • painless, red lumps on the skin, called rheumatoid nodules, that may be noticed on the knees, toes, and elbows
  • chest pain and difficulty breathing
  • dry mouth and painfully dry eyes 

The image that most of us closely associate with Rheumatoid arthritis is of large, swollen, and often deviated joints in the hand.

This is caused by prolonged inflammation, which causes the joints to swell and muscles to atrophy, leading to bone loss and joint deformities

Diagnosis:

Diagnosing Rheumatoid arthritis can be tricky. There isn’t yet a single test that definitively determines whether or not a person has RA. Doctors look at a combination of the medical history, presence of key symptoms, results of blood tests, and X-rays.

Treatment:

Although we don’t know precisely what causes Rheumatoid arthritis, there are a number of treatments that can help alleviate symptoms, especially during flare-ups, and slow progression of the disease.

The first course of action is to pay attention to lifestyle. Proper exercise and diet can help patients ease the pain associated with arthritis. That being said, most people who are diagnosed with RA are usually prescribed a combination of several types of medications.

For acute pain and inflammation, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, can be effective in relieving symptoms in the short term.

While these types of medications can help get someone through the day with less pain, they don’t do anything to stop the progression of the arthritis.

Immunosuppressants are a second class of drugs used to treat RA, they're designed to suppress the immune system. These drugs can slow the progression of RA by reducing the rate of damage to both cartilage and bone.

The newest class of drugs to treat RA are called “biologics,” which were developed through genetic engineering. Where Immunosuppressants create a broad-brush approach that targets the entire immune system, biologics target and suppress elements of the body’s inflammatory response that are specific to RA. The goal is to slow down the progression of the arthritis and preserve joint function for as long as possible.