A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Signs and treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease

Rheumatoid arthritis, commonly referred to as RA, is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the joints and damage in other organs like skin and lungs. The most common signs of rheumatoid arthritis are joint pain, swelling and stiffness. It can lead to long-term complications if left untreated.

Woman holding her wrist - Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease, causes joints that are stiff, painful, warm to touch and swollen.

There is no clear answer to predict who develops rheumatoid arthritis. A combination of genetic and environmental factors influences who is impacted. People with RA in their family are more likely to develop it. Some infections and smoking make you more vulnerable.

People are susceptible at any age, including young adults or children. However, women who are 40-60 years old are more commonly affected.

Early diagnosis is important for rheumatoid arthritis

It’s important to recognize the signs of rheumatoid arthritis to help treat the disease early. If there is ongoing inflammation, RA can lead to joint damage or joint deformity. Marshfield Clinic Health System Rheumatologist Dr. Thomas Bartow says the most joint damage is in the first two years of the disease so early control is important.

“Rheumatoid arthritis usually affects the small joints and can lead to pain, warmth, swelling and morning stiffness. The most common places are the hands and feet,” Dr. Bartow said. “It can rarely affect other organs, including the skin and lungs. Following diagnosis, it’s important to continue following care with a rheumatologist regularly to monitor for other signs of organ involvement.”

The diagnosis can take time. Your doctor does a complete physical exam, takes X-rays and does blood work. This, paired with the characteristics of the joint pain, helps your doctor narrow down causes and determine if it is RA. Therefore, identifying the cause of pain is important because it helps determine treatment.

“Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis can be very targeted and we do have many options to treat it,” he said.

Rheumatoid arthritis treatment options are available

Your doctor works with you to find the right treatment to control symptoms and flare-ups. The long-term plan is to reduce inflammation.

“Every patient is different and finding the right treatment for each patient can take some time. Typically, we start with medications, like methotrexate, which we have a lot of experience with and that is often enough to control your symptoms. But, there are other disease-modifying medications that can be used,” Dr. Bartow said. “It’s important to work with your rheumatologist to determine the best therapy.”

Other common medications to rapidly reduce inflammation include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids. These medications are used for short periods to improve symptoms.

Long-term treatment focuses on medication to manage inflammation to prevent joint damage and reduce episodes of flare-ups. All treatments carry side effects. Talk with your doctor about how you are feeling and get regular blood tests to monitor your health.

“Rheumatoid arthritis is considered a chronic disease, which can be well-managed with treatment, but there is currently no cure,” Dr. Bartow said. “Early treatment is important to help slow the disease progression and help prevent joint damage.”

Lifestyle choices supplement treatment

The Mediterranean diet, focusing on whole grains, fish, chicken, vegetables, legumes, nuts and fruits, can be less inflammatory. Data supports improvements for people taking fish oils and turmeric supplements.

Similarly, staying active is still important. You should choose activities that do not cause stress to your painful joints. Use an elliptical or walk outside on even ground. Swimming or even walking in a pool is also a great low-impact exercise option.

“Many patients do end up in a state of remission or have low disease activity and have excellent quality of life with minimal joint pain through therapy,” he said.

For help with rheumatoid arthritis, talk to a Marshfield Clinic Health System Rheumatology provider.

Find a Rheumatology provider Learn more about Rheumatology

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