What is RA?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the joints. It can be a painful and debilitating disease.

A lot has been discovered about RA, but the exact cause remains a mystery. Studies have shown that environmental factors play a part in who develops RA and that smoking is a big risk factor.

RA affects about 1.5 million people in the United States. The disease is more prevalent among women than men. In fact, nearly three times as many women have the disease as men.

If you have RA, your immune system attacks the lining surrounding your joints. This causes the synovial tissue cells, or the soft tissue that lines the inside of the joints, to divide and thicken. This thickening of the synovial tissue can lead to pain and swelling around the joint area.

RA can affect almost any joints in your body, including:

  • feet
  • hands
  • wrists
  • elbows
  • knees
  • ankles

It typically affects similar joints on both sides of the body. RA most commonly affects the knuckle joints.

What are the symptoms of RA?

If you have RA, warmth and swelling in your joints is common, but these symptoms might go unnoticed. You’ll also most likely begin to experience tenderness and pain. You may feel stiff in the morning for more than 30 minutes, or you may suffer from joint pain and swelling for several weeks.

Usually, more than one joint is affected. RA commonly affects smaller joints, such as those present in the hands and feet.

In addition to the joints, RA can also have adverse effects on other parts of your body. Other common symptoms of RA include:

Currently, there is no cure for RA. Medicine can be used to treat the disease, but severe cases can result in loss of mobility or the development of joint deformities.

What causes RA?

The exact cause of RA remains a mystery. Your genes and hormones can play a part in the development of RA. Bacteria, viruses, and other potential infectious agents might also play a role in the disease.

Environmental factors, such as air pollution or insecticides, may also contribute to RA. Smoking is also an environmental factor.

What’s the connection between smoking and RA?

The exact role that smoking plays in the development of RA is unknown.

A study published in Arthritis Research and Therapy found that even light smoking is linked to an elevated risk of RA. It also demonstrated that smoking daily could more than double a woman’s risk of developing RA. The likelihood of developing RA decreased after quitting smoking, and the overall risk continued to decrease over time.

The participants’ overall risk decreased by one-third 15 years after they quit smoking. The risk of RA was still much higher in former smokers 15 years after quitting than it was for those who never smoked, however.

Researchers think that smoking stirs up faulty immune functioning if you already have certain genetic factors that make you more likely to develop RA.

Smoking can also interfere with the effectiveness of your RA medications or other treatments. Smoking may make it more difficult to incorporate an exercise program into your treatment plan. If you need surgery, smoking may increase the chances of complications. It can affect anesthesia and drug metabolism, as well as your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Nonsmokers also seem to do better after surgery.

You may not be aware that your smoking is making your RA worse so you may not be overly concerned with trying to quit. Smoking may be a calming mechanism for you. It may help to distract you from the pain of RA or simply just to make you feel better.

How can I quit smoking?

If you’re a smoker and you want to improve your RA symptoms or decrease your chance of developing RA and other health problems, you should quit smoking.

Tobacco is addictive, so quitting smoking can be difficult. Here are some tips you can follow to help you on your journey:

  • Speak with your doctor. You may be able to quit cold turkey, but many smokers can’t. Your doctor can talk to you about the different options that are available. There are focus groups related to quitting smoking. There are also medications available with and without a prescription that can help you quit. The focus groups coupled with the medication generally work very well.
  • Decide what type of smoking cessation plan you want to follow.
  • Pick the day that you plan to quit. This will motivate you to get serious about quitting smoking and get you working toward your goal.
  • Tell your friends and loved ones that you’re trying to quit so that they don’t offer you cigarettes or make it harder for you to quit. You’ll need their help. You’ll be tempted to smoke many times, but with the support of your friends and family, you can quit.
  • Find other activities to distract yourself from smoking. For example, if you typically smoke in the car, keep gum with you to chew on when the urge to smoke strikes. You can also try listening to an audiobook to eliminate boredom.
  • Know what to expect. Because nicotine is a drug, your body will go through withdrawal. You may feel depressed, restless, cranky, anxious, frustrated, or mad. You may be unable to sleep, or you might gain weight.
  • Don’t give up if you relapse. It may take several tries before you can kick the habit.

Outlook

The American Lung Association lists smoking as the leading cause of preventable death. Secondhand smoke can be just as dangerous, so you should think about the safety of your kids, other family members, and friends.

Quitting smoking will help with your RA. It will also greatly improve your life and may enable you to reduce your RA medications. There’s help out there. Your doctor can tell you about nearby smoking cessation programs and work with you to come up with the best plan for you.

If your first plan doesn’t work, try a different option. You may relapse several times before you finally quit, but that’s OK. Smoking cessation is an emotional process. Make sure you have plenty of support. Quitting smoking will improve both your RA and your overall health.