Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic disease causing inflammation and deformity of the joints. Other problems throughout the body (systemic problems) may also develop, including inflammation of blood vessels (vasculitis), the development of bumps (called rheumatoid nodules) in various parts of the body, lung disease, blood disorders, and weakening of the bones (osteoporosis).
The skeletal system of the body is made up of different types of strong, fibrous tissue called connective tissue. Bone, cartilage, ligaments, and tendonsare all forms of connective tissue that have different compositions and different characteristics.
The joints are structures that hold two or more bones together. Some joints (synovial joints) allow for movement between the bones being joined (articulating bones). The simplest synovial joint involves two bones, separated by a slight gap called the joint cavity. The ends of each articular bone are coveredby a layer of cartilage. Both articular bones and the joint cavity are surrounded by a tough tissue called the articular capsule. The articular capsule has two components, the fibrous membrane on the outside and the synovial membrane (or synovium) on the inside. The fibrous membrane may include tough bandsof tissue called ligaments, which are responsible for providing support to the joints. The synovial membrane has special cells and many tiny blood vessels (capillaries). This membrane produces a supply of synovial fluid that fillsthe joint cavity, lubricates it, and helps the articular bones move smoothlyabout the joint.
In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the synovial membrane becomes severely inflamed. Usually thin and delicate, the synovium becomes thick and stiff, with numerous infoldings on its surface. The membrane is invaded by white blood cells,which produce a variety of destructive chemicals. The cartilage along the articular surfaces of the bones may be attacked and destroyed, and the bone, articular capsule, and ligaments may begin to wear away (erode). These processesseverely interfere with movement in the joint.
RA exists all over the world and affects men and women of all races. In the United States alone, about two million people suffer from the disease. Women are three times more likely than men to have RA. About 80% of people with RA are diagnosed between the ages of 35-50. RA appears to run in families, although certain factors in the environment may also influence the development of the disease.
The underlying event that promotes RA in a person is unknown. Given the knowngenetic factors involved in RA, some researchers have suggested that an outside event occurs that triggers the disease cycle in a person with a particular genetic makeup.
Many researchers are examining the possibility that exposure to an organism (like a bacteria or virus) may be the first event in the development of RA. The body's normal response to such an organism is to produce cells that can attack and kill the organism, protecting the body from the foreign invader. In an autoimmune disease like RA, this immune cycle spins out of control. The body produces misdirected immune cells, which accidentally identify parts of theperson's body as foreign. These immune cells then produce a variety of chemicals that injure and destroy parts of the body.
RA can begin very gradually, or it can strike quickly. The first symptoms arepain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. The most commonly involved joints include hands, feet, wrists, elbows, and ankles, although other joints mayalso be involved. The joints are affected in a symmetrical fashion. This means that if the right wrist is involved, the left wrist is also involved. Patients frequently experience painful joint stiffness when they first get up inthe morning, lasting for perhaps an hour. Over time, the joints become deformed. The joints may be difficult to straighten, and affected fingers and toesmay be permanently bent (flexed). The hands and feet may curve outward in anabnormal way.
Many patients also notice increased fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, and sometimes fever. Rheumatoid nodules are bumps that appear under the skin around the joints and on the top of the arms and legs. These nodules can alsooccur in the tissue covering the outside of the lungs and lining the chest cavity (pleura), and in the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord (meninges). Lung involvement may cause shortness of breath and is seen more in men. Vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels) may interfere with blood circulation. This can result in irritated pits (ulcers) in the skin, tissue death (gangrene), and interference with nerve functioning that causes numbness and tingling.
There are no tests available that can absolutely diagnose RA. Instead, a number of tests exist that can suggest the diagnosis of RA. Blood tests include aspecial test of red blood cells (called erythrocyte sedimentation rate), which is positive in nearly 100% of patients with RA. However, this test is alsopositive in a variety of other diseases. Tests for anemia are usually positive in patients with RA, but can also be positive in many other unrelated diseases. Rheumatoid factor is an autoantibody found in about 66% of patients with RA. However, it is also found in about 5% of all healthy people and in 10-20% of healthy people over the age of 65. Rheumatoid factor is also positive in a large number of other autoimmune diseases and other infectious diseases.
A long, thin needle can be inserted into a synovial joint to withdraw a sample of the synovial fluid for examination. In RA, this fluid has certain characteristics that indicate active inflammation. The fluid will be cloudy, relatively thinner than usual, with increased protein and decreased or normal glucose. It will also contain a higher than normal number of white blood cells. While these findings suggest inflammatory arthritis, they are not specific to RA.
There is no cure available for RA. However, treatment is available to combatthe inflammation in order to prevent destruction of the joints, and to prevent other complications of the disease. Efforts are also made to maintain flexibility and mobility of the joints.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents and aspirin are used to decrease inflammation and to treat pain. While these medications can be helpful, they do notinterrupt the progress of the disease. Low-dose steroid medications can be helpful at both managing symptoms and slowing the progress of RA, as well as other drugs called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs. These include gold compounds, D-penicillamine, antimalarial drugs, and sulfasalazine. Methotrexate, azathioprine, and cyclophosphamide are all drugs that suppress the immunesystem and can decrease inflammation. All of the drugs listed have significant toxic side effects, which require healthcare professionals to carefully compare the risks associated with these medications versus the benefits.
Total bed rest is sometimes prescribed during the very active, painful phasesof RA. Splints may be used to support and rest painful joints. Later, afterinflammation has somewhat subsided, physical therapists may provide a carefulexercise regimen in an attempt to maintain the maximum degree of flexibilityand mobility. Joint replacement surgery, particularly for the knee and the hip joints, is sometimes recommended when these joints have been severely damaged.
A variety of alternative therapies has been recommended. Meditation, hypnosis, guided imagery, and relaxation techniques; acupressure and acupuncture haveall been used for pain relief. Body work can be soothing, decreasing stressand tension, and is thought to improve/restore chemical balance within the body.
A multitude of beneficial nutritional supplements include fish oils, the enzymes bromelain and pancreatin, and the antioxidants (vitamins A, C, and E, selenium, and zinc).
Anti-inflammatory herbs include tumeric (Curcuma longa), ginger (Zingiber officinale), feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium), devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), Chinese thoroughwax (Bupleuri falcatum), and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) and cramp bark (Vibernum opulus) can be applied topically to the affected joints.
Homeopathic practitioners recommended Rhus toxicondendron and Bryonia (Bryonia alba) for acute prescriptions. Yoga promotes relaxation, relieves stress, and improves flexibility. Nutritionists suggest that a vegetarian diet low in animal products and sugar may help to decrease inflammation and pain. Beneficial foods include cold water fish (mackerel, herring, salmon, and sardines) and flavonoid-rich berries (cherries, blueberries, hawthorn berries, blackberries, etc.).
Because RA is often connected with food allergies/intolerances, an elimination/challenge diet can help to decrease symptoms as well as identify the foodsthat should be eliminated. Hydrotherapy can help to greatly reduce pain and inflammation. Moist heat is more effective than dry heat, and cold packs are useful during acute flare-ups.
About 15% of all RA patients will have symptoms for a short period of time and will ultimately get better, leaving them with no long-term problems. A number of factors are considered to suggest the likelihood of a worse prognosis.These include:
- Race and gender (female and Caucasian)
- More than 20 joints involved
- Extremely high erythrocyte sedimentation rate
- Extremely high levels of rheumatoid factor
- Consistent, lastinginflammation
- Evidence of erosion of bone, joint, or cartilage on x rays
- Older age at diagnosis
- Rheumatoid nodules
- Other coexisting diseases
- Certain genetic characteristics, diagnosable through testing.
Patients with RA have a shorter life span, averaging a decrease of three to seven years of life. Patients sometimes die when very severe disease, infection, and gastrointestinal bleeding occur. Complications due to the side effectsof some of the more potent drugs used to treat RA are also factors in thesedeaths.
There is no known way to prevent the development of RA. The most that can behoped for is to prevent or slow its progress.