Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory autoimmune disorder in which your immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of your joints, leading to pain and inflammation throughout your body. While it can cause discomfort, there are many effective treatment options that can help reduce the frequency of flare-ups and prevent the condition from progressing to a more advanced stage. Read on for information about rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and treatment.
Causes and risk factors
Like all autoimmune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis occurs as the result of an improper immune response. However, the specific triggers of this response have not been identified. Evidence suggests that there is a genetic component; some individuals may be more sensitive to certain viruses and bacteria that can trigger rheumatoid arthritis, and having a family history of rheumatoid arthritis is a risk factor for the condition, especially if you smoke or are overweight.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects about three times as many women as men, potentially due to estrogen levels and sex differences in the physiological effects of stress. Women are also more likely to experience a more severe form of rheumatoid arthritis.
The condition often first develops during middle age, but it can affect anyone of any age. Children and adolescents under 16 may experience a form of arthritis called juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA).
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is characterized by inflammation and pain in the joints. In most cases, the pain happens on both sides of the body — a symptom that distinguishes rheumatoid arthritis from other types of arthritis. Some individuals also experience joint stiffness that intensifies in the morning and after periods of physical inactivity.
Early-stage rheumatoid arthritis often affects your smaller joints — for example, the joints between your fingers and hands and toes and feet — before spreading to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips, and shoulders. Additional symptoms may include fatigue, fever, loss of appetite, and a feeling of weakness.
Symptoms may vary by individual, and they can also fluctuate over time. Many people experience flare-ups in which symptoms intensify, followed by periods of mild symptoms or none at all.
As a progressive condition, rheumatoid arthritis can become more severe if untreated. The inflammation damages your joints, which can lead to chronic pain, balance issues, or misshapen joints. It can also lead to problems in other important organs like your lungs, heart, and eyes.
Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis
Getting an early diagnosis makes a big difference in the prognosis and effectiveness of treatment. If you have any concerns about potential rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible for an evaluation.
The diagnosis process often involves several steps. Your doctor will first ask about your medical history and your experience of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. They will then conduct a physical exam of your joints, checking for swelling, redness, and limitations in movement.
After your physical exam, your doctor may recommend blood tests to check for antibodies and inflammation markers linked to rheumatoid arthritis, including:
An erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) test, which examines how quickly your red blood cells sink to the bottom of a test tube. Higher rates of settlement may indicate inflammation.
A c-reactive protein (CRP) test, which identifies your blood levels of CRP, an inflammation-linked protein produced in your liver.
A rheumatoid factor (RF) test, which checks for rheumatoid factor, an antibody found in about 80% of individuals with rheumatoid arthritis.
Imaging tests like ultrasounds, X-rays, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans may also be used to support a diagnosis.
Treating rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is not curable, but there are a variety of treatment options that can help you manage the condition and prevent severe tissue damage.
Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) including ibuprofen (Advil®), aspirin (Bayer®) or naproxen (Aleve®) can you help you manage pain and inflammation during flare-ups, as well as corticosteroids. Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) is also effective at reducing pain. Be sure to consult your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medication for an extended period of time.
Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors such as baricitinib (Olumiant®), tofacitinib (Xeljanz®), and upadacitinib (Rinvoq®) can also help relieve pain and inflammation.
Other medications may be prescribed to slow the tissue damage caused by rheumatoid arthritis, including disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) like methotrexate (Rheumatrex®), sulfasalazine (Azulfidine®), and leflunomide (Arava®), which prevent your immune system’s response to triggers. If a traditional DMARD is not effective, your doctor may prescribe an injectable biologic DMARD, which targets a more specific pathway in your immune system. Commonly prescribed biologic DMARDs include etanercept (Enbrel®), infliximab (Remicade®), adalimumab (Humira®), and certolizumab pegol (Cimzia®).
Many individuals with rheumatoid arthritis use cold compresses and ice packs or hot compresses and warm showers to treat inflammation and pain during flare-ups. Some people prefer a balance of hot and cold treatments.
Making lifestyle adjustments can improve your quality of life and lower your risk for RA-related health complications.
While rheumatoid arthritis can affect your mobility and limit certain forms of exercise, it’s important to stay physically active. Gentle exercise like water exercise, tai chi, yoga, and stretching can reduce joint pressure and expand your joints’ range of motion.
Nutrition and diet choices can reduce inflammation and help you maintain a healthy weight. Avoid or reduce your intake of foods that may contribute to joint pain and inflammation including sugars and refined carbohydrates and gluten. In addition, consume alcohol in moderation.
Avoiding smoking and getting enough rest are also part of managing rheumatoid arthritis and preventing related health issues.
Since rheumatoid arthritis affects your immune system, those living with the condition often have a higher risk for other infections. Vaccines for the flu, pneumonia, shingles, and COVID-19 can protect you against illness. Check with your doctor about which vaccines you need.
Your partner in health
Life with rheumatoid arthritis is easier with a reliable pharmacy partner by your side. Our pharmacists have specialized training in arthritis treatment and can answer any questions you may have, from medication side effects to non-pharmacological treatment options and navigating lifestyle changes. In addition, we offer free, same-day delivery and medication management tools like reminders and auto refills in our app to make it as simple as possible to stay on track with your treatment.
To learn more, reach out any time through in-app secure messaging or by phone at 1-800-874-5881.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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