A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

3 things you should know about rheumatoid arthritis

Woman holding her wrist - Rheumatoid arthritis

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

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

There is no clear answer to predict who develops rheumatoid arthritis. A combination of genetic and environmental factors influences who is impacted. People with rheumatoid arthritis 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

Early signs include painful, warm to touch, swollen or stiff joints, especially in the morning. Rheumatoid arthritis usually affects small joints like hands, wrists, fingers and toes. The pain and inflammation is most commonly present on both sides of the body.

If left untreated, rheumatoid arthritis can cause bone damage and joint misalignment, which can be permanent.

Other forms of autoimmune conditions have similar symptoms. So it is important to talk with your doctor if you are having joint pain. “You may not have all the symptoms at the same time,” said Dr. Melissa Matzumura, rheumatologist at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “Often it can start with one joint and then you’ll feel more as it progresses.”

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 rheumatoid arthritis. Therefore, identifying the cause of pain is important because it helps determine treatment.

Two courses of treatment

Your doctor works with you to find the right treatment to control symptoms and flare-ups. The long-term plan is to reduce inflammation. “Finding the right treatment is a work in progress because the response to medications is different for each patient,” Matzumura said.

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.

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. “It’s also important to note that these options are good add-ons to your treatments. They don’t replace your medications,” Matzumura said.

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.

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