Autoimmune diseases cause your body’s immune system to mistakenly attack normal cells. In autoimmune arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), your immune system attacks the lining of your joints. This inflammation is not confined to the joints and can affect other body organs.
Symptoms vary greatly from person to person, as does the rate of progression. While there’s no cure for this long-term condition, a variety of treatments can help improve your quality of life.
Symptoms generally begin slowly and can come and go. Joint pain and inflammation affect both sides of the body equally, and can be marked by these signs and symptoms:
- deformed joints
- hard bumps of tissue (nodules) under the skin on your arms
- reduced range of motion
- dry mouth
- difficulty sleeping
- weight loss
- eye inflammation, dry eyes, itchy eyes, eye discharge
- chest pain when you breathe (pleurisy)
More than 23.5 million people in the United States are affected by an autoimmune disease. It’s one of the top causes of disability and death.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1.5 million adults in the United States have RA. Nearly 300,000 children in the United States live with some form of arthritis or rheumatic condition.
Your likelihood of developing autoimmune arthritis can be affected by certain risk factors. For instance, risk factors for RA include:
- Your gender: Women develop RA at a higher rate than men.
- Your age: RA can develop at any age, but most people begin to notice symptoms between the ages of 49 and 60 years.
- Your family history: You’re at increased risk of having RA if other family members have it.
- Smoking: Cigarette smoking can increase your chances of developing RA. Quitting can lower your risk.
Autoimmune diseases tend to share symptoms with other conditions, so diagnosis can be difficult, particularly in the early stages.
For example, there’s no one test that can specifically diagnose RA. Instead, diagnosis involves patient-reported symptoms, clinical examination, and medical tests, including:
- rheumatoid factor (RF) test
- anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide antibody test
- blood count
- erythrocyte sedimentation rate and c-reactive protein
- MRI scan
You can help with diagnosis by giving your doctor your complete medical history and keeping a record of symptoms. Don’t hesitate to seek a second opinion from a specialist, such as a rheumatologist.
Treatment varies according to symptoms and disease progression.
For example, depending on the degree of involvement of your RA, you may require ongoing care by a rheumatologist. Certain medications may be prescribed for your condition such as:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
- biologic agents
- immunosuppressant drugs
- other biologics like TNF-alpha inhibitors
Physical therapy is another option that can help reduce pain and improve flexibility. A physical therapist can teach you the proper way to exercise. An occupational therapist can recommend assistive devices such as canes, crutches, and grab bars to help you perform daily activities.
In severe cases, you may need surgery to repair or replace damaged joints.
Complications of autoimmune arthritis vary. For example, RA complications include carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoporosis, and deformity of joints. RA may also lead to lung complications such as:
- tissue damage
- blockage of small airways (bronchiolitis obliterans)
- high blood pressure of the lung (pulmonary hypertension)
- fluid in the chest (pleural effusions)
- scarring (pulmonary fibrosis)
Heart complications of RA include:
Excess weight stresses joints, so try to maintain a healthy diet and perform gentle exercises to improve your range of motion. Applying cold to joints can numb pain and ease swelling, and heat can soothe aching muscles.
Stress can also intensify symptoms. Stress-reducing techniques like tai chi, deep breathing exercises, and meditation may be helpful.
If you have RA, you need 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night. If that’s not enough, try to nap during the day. You also have an increased risk of heart and lung diseases, so if you smoke, you should consider quitting.
Your outlook depends on many factors such as:
- your overall health
- your age at diagnosis
- how early your treatment plan begins and how well you follow it
You can improve your outlook by making smart lifestyle choices like quitting smoking, getting regular exercise, and choosing healthy foods. For people with RA, new medications are continuing to improve quality of life.