Rheumatoid Arthritis: Causes and Treatments of RA

rheumatoid arthritis

Image: Shutterstock/ Puwadol Jaturawutthichai

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is common in fibromyalgia patients. Numerous studies have shown that people with fibromyalgia develop RA at a rate higher than the general population. But it’s also pretty common in the general population as well. And odds are pretty good that you might suffer from some kind of arthritis in your lifetime. So add all that together and it makes sense that if you have fibromyalgia you’re worried about RA.

But what exactly is rheumatoid arthritis? What are the symptoms? And is there any way to treat it?

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a condition that affects the lining of your joints, the synovium. It’s something called an autoimmune disease, which is essentially when the body’s immune system turns against it and begins to attack your own tissue. In a healthy immune system, your white blood cells produce things called antibodies. These antibodies identify and attack any foreign cells that enter your body. Usually, these are things like bacteria and viruses.

After attacking these foreign invaders, the white blood cells become conditioned to identify and destroy them in the future. But in an autoimmune condition, the immune system instead gets confused and thinks your own cells are dangerous bacteria. So your antibodies begin attacking your body’s own cells and destroying them.

When it comes to RA, the cells that the immune system is destroying are in the tissue that protects your joints, called the synovium. This fluid-filled tissue usually cushions your joints so that the bones don’t rub up against each other and your joints move smoothly. But RA leads to this tissue becoming inflamed and hard, making it painful to move your joints.

What Are The Symptoms?

As the synovium in your joints gets destroyed it produces a number of symptoms. The joints might swell up with fluid, and even gradually become disfigured by arthritis. The swelling will also leave your joints warm to the touch as blood flows to the area, trying to repair the damaged tissue.

The joints will also be very stiff, especially in the mornings. All of these joint issues are obvious signs of RA, but there are also some more general symptoms. These symptoms are things like fever, and fatigue, which are both caused by the disorder in the immune system.

How Is It Treated?

There are a few ways to treat RA. Typically, treatment is focused on either dealing with the damage to the joints themselves or on helping manage the over-active immune system.

The most basic form of treatment is simple, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen. These types of drugs are called NSAID’s or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. They work by not only blocking some of the pain receptors in the brain, which makes the arthritis pain more bearable but by actually reducing some of the swelling that damages your joints.

If NSAID’s aren’t enough, a doctor might prescribe another type of drug called a corticosteroid. Corticosteroids are hormones naturally produced in the body in response to inflammation. But if your body isn’t producing enough of them, your doctor can also give you some to help reduce the dangerous swelling in your joints.

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs are another option for dealing with rheumatoid arthritis. These are drugs that help regulate the action of the immune system so that it doesn’t continue to destroy the joints and cause the painful symptoms of RA. The most common of these drugs are things like methotrexate and leflunomide. The danger is that they carry the risk of certain side effects like liver or bone damage, so they should be used with care.

Finally, for cases of really severe RA, you can actually have a joint replacement procedure. Typically, these are necessary for people with RA, because, while painful, the joints still function. But the longer you suffer from RA, the more severe the damage to your joints becomes to the point where the protective synovium is worn down completely and the bones actually scrape against each other. This is called osteoarthritis.

In those cases, the only real option left is surgical. Basically, the way it works is that a surgeon will take an artificial joint made from plastic and implant it in your body. The smooth plastic will perform the role that your synovium used to, protecting you from the pain of worn down joints.

So, let us know. Have you had rheumatoid arthritis? How did it start? What did you do to treat it? Tell us in the comments section below.