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Don’t Ignore the Signs of Rheumatoid Arthritis
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Don’t Ignore the Signs of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Are you struggling with persistent joint pain and worried that it might be something more serious? You’re not alone. Joint pain can be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis, a common condition that affects 1.5 million Americans. In fact, 71 out of every 10,000 people are diagnosed with RA yearly. 

While more common in women than in men, rheumatoid arthritis often occurs in older adults who have poor health or aren’t physically active. RA onset can begin as young as age 30 but is more likely to be present in people aged 60 to 69 years old. It’s a condition that can worsen with age, and as it progresses, rheumatoid arthritis can limit the ability to perform regular activities.

Diagnosis and treatment of rheumatoid arthritis are crucial steps in preventing long-term complications. Left untreated, it can permanently damage joints and cause other health problems. It’s estimated that 60% of people with inadequately treated RA are unable to work 10 years after onset. Here’s what you need to know about joint pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis.

RA Is an Autoimmune Disease
Unlike osteoarthritis, which is caused by mechanical wear and tear on aging joints, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the joints. The body mistakes joint tissue for a foreign invader and develops antibodies to destroy it. 

It’s not fully understood how this disease occurs, but heredity, hormones, lifestyle, and environment are being researched as factors in the development of rheumatoid arthritis. Genetics can represent 50% to 60% of the risk of developing RA. Poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, obesity, and excessive drinking may lead to poor health and inflammation that can impact the immune system. New studies are also looking at periodontal infection as an RA trigger. Other research has looked at bacteria or viruses in the development of the disease.

RA Symptoms Can Start Small

People with rheumatoid arthritis symptoms can experience warm, stiff, or swollen joints in the fingers and toes. Some experience morning pain and stiffness for 30 minutes or more after waking. Other symptoms can include rheumatoid nodules, or lumps, under the skin. These are primarily seen in hands, ankles, and elbows. Other joints, such as the hips, shoulders, and knees, can also be affected. According to the CDC, signs and symptoms of RA that you may experience include:

  • Pain or aching in more than one joint.
  • Stiffness in more than one joint.
  • Tenderness and swelling in more than one joint.
  • The same symptoms on both sides of the body (such as in both hands or both knees).
  • Weight loss.
  • Fever.
  • Fatigue or tiredness.
  • Weakness.

Untreated RA Can Cause Other Problems

An RA diagnosis should be taken seriously. Left untreated, RA can lead to widespread damage throughout the body. For example, it can attack the heart and pericardium and cause generalized inflammation across the body. It can also affect the lungs, eyes, skin, and blood. One study found a 60% increase in heart attack risk one year after RA diagnosis. It’s also associated with a higher risk of lymphoma, anemia, osteoporosis, and depression. While many people live with RA well into their 80s or 90s, the disease can reduce life expectancy by 10 to 15 years for some.

Early RA Diagnosis Is a Game Changer

There are many reasons why you want to have RA diagnosed early. It’s believed that 80% to 85% of patients with rheumatoid arthritis will experience joint damage. Most of the joint damage occurs within the first two years of disease onset. Early rheumatoid arthritis treatment can help reduce long-term joint damage. RA is diagnosed by a rheumatologist, who will check for swollen joints, tenderness, and range of motion. They will also perform lab and blood tests to identify antibody proteins that appear in the blood. Imaging tests such as X-rays, MRIs, and ultrasounds can check for signs of joint damage. 

Overall, the progression of RA can be seen in these four stages of rheumatoid arthritis:

  • Stage 1: Autoimmune process begins to attack the body’s joint tissue.
  • Stage 2: Antibodies develop and swelling worsens.
  • Stage 3: Visible symptoms appear and can be diagnosed with blood and imaging tests.
  • Stage 4: Joints become fused and no longer work, resulting in stiffness and mobility loss.

Seronegative RA Is Difficult to ID

Were you surprised to get an RA diagnosis even though you received a negative blood test for the condition? There’s an explanation for that. While 60% to 80% of people with RA create antibodies in their blood, some are seronegative for rheumatoid arthritis. In this case, the body doesn’t produce the RF (rheumatoid factor) and anti-CCP (anti–cyclic citrullinated peptide) antibodies typically used to diagnose the condition. If this is the case, clinicians rely on family history, symptoms, and other factors to make a diagnosis. For those with seronegative RA, a routine blood test may not find the disease in progression, making it harder to get diagnosed and treated in the early stages.

Trends in RA Treatment Can Provide Relief

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but there are treatment options you can discuss with your healthcare provider. Treatment includes medication, lifestyle changes, and dietary changes to keep the disease in remission. NSAIDs are used to reduce pain and inflammation, but they don’t affect the progression of RA. Corticosteroids decrease inflammation; other immune blockers can slow the progression. Other therapies, such as biofeedback and exercise, can help reduce the stress associated with flare-ups. For end-stage RA, surgery can be performed to replace damaged joints.

RA management strategies recommended by the CDC include:

  • Physical exercise, such as walking, running, biking, or swimming.
  • Self-management programs to control symptoms.
  • Smoking cessation.
  • Weight management to reduce complications of RA due to obesity.

Find Age-Friendly Health Care Where You Live

Age-friendly Health Care is care that addresses your unique needs and wants. It can help you enjoy a better quality of life with care that is safe and based on what research shows are the most important things to pay attention to as we get older, the 4Ms for healthy aging: what Matters most to you, the Medication you take and how it impacts your wellbeing, Mentation (that’s your mood and memory) and your Mobility, which is so important for maintaining your health and independence.

Did you know that more and more health systems are offering Age-Friendly Care?  Learn about Age-Friendly Health Care and where you can find it at AgeFriendly.org.

THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

Did you know that more and more health systems are offering Age-Friendly Care? Learn about Age-Friendly Health Care and where you can find it at AgeFriendly.org.

 

THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

 


 

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