In rheumatoid arthritis (R.A.), the joint lining swells, invades surrounding tissues, and produces chemical substances that attack and destroy the joint surface. Rheumatoid arthritis typically affects joints on both sides of the body in the hands and feet, as well as the hips, knees, and elbows. Without proper treatment, R.A. can become a chronic, disabling condition. Rheumatoid arthritis is known as an autoimmune disease. An infection or environmental factor can activate specific genes that some people possess, triggering the development of R.A. When the body is exposed to such a trigger, the immune system responds inappropriately. Instead of protecting the joint, the immune system begins to produces substances that attack the joint.
Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Swelling, pain, and stiffness in the joint, even when it is not being used
- A feeling of warmth around the joint
- Joint deformities
- Systemic symptoms, including fever, anemia (low red blood cell count) and loss of appetite and energy.
- Developing nodules, or lumps under the skin
Diagnosing Rheumatoid Arthritis
If you are exhibiting the above symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, ask your primary doctor if you should be evaluated by a rheumatologist (medical arthritis doctor). Should you eventually fail treatment with medications, your doctor may recommend treatment by an orthopedist (surgical arthritis doctor).
To make a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis:
- A medical history evaluation and a physical examination are performed in determining if rheumatoid arthritis is the cause for joint pain.
- During the physical exam, a doctor will look for swelling, warmth around the joint, painful motion, lumps under the skin, joint deformities and joint contractures (inability to fully stretch or bend the joint).
- Diagnostic tests can include blood tests and x-rays. A blood test may reveal an antibody called rheumatoid factor, an indicator of R.A., and the x-ray can help show the progression of the disease.
Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis
At present, there is no cure for R.A. However, there are a number of treatment options that can aid in relieving joint pain and improve mobility. Medications can be used to control R.A. Aspirin and ibuprofen can help reduce pain and inflammation. Exercise is also an important part of the conservative treatment program. An exercise program that helps to strengthen the joints can be developed by your physician and a physical therapist. Joint replacement surgery is the final alternative in restoring function of the joint.
The Connecticut Joint Replacement Institute can help you explore your treatment options.