Continuing on with our theme of arthritis, let’s take a look at Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). Unlike other types of arthritis that can develop from overuse or injury, Rheumatoid Arthritis comes from within. Classified as an autoimmune disorder, RA occurs when the body attacks its own tissues, specifically the lining of the joints. One of the reasons rheumatoid arthritis and foot care go together is that the early signs of RA occur in the smaller joints, like where your toes attach to your feet.
The spaces in between your joints have a membrane called the Synovium. This is a specialized tissue that lines our joints and maintains the synovial fluid, which reduces friction between joints and absorbs shock from our movement. For reasons unknown to science (although they have a few clues), some people’s bodies decide to treat this tissue like a foreign invader and will attack.
When attacked, the body reacts with swelling, redness, and stiffness. During these attacks, or flares, the synovium thickens, causing damage to the surrounding cartilage and bone. Flares can last for days or months and the longer and more often your RA symptoms remain, the more likely you are to have permanent damage. Constant thickening of the synovium can stretch and weaken the connections between tendons and ligaments and lead to permanent physical deformity. While the disease generally starts in the fingers and toes, it can easily spread to the wrists, ankles, knees, elbows, and further.
Science only has a few clues as to why some people develop RA while others don’t. Age (first occurs in people between 40 and 60 years old), sex (women account for 70% of RA patients), obesity (especially when diagnosed at a younger age), and family history (certain genetic markers are thought to contribute to RA) are all contributing factors to your risk for rheumatoid arthritis.
Unfortunately, the effects of RA can be felt way beyond your joints. RA can also lead to complications with your skin, eyes, lungs, heart, kidneys, salivary glands, nerve tissues, bone marrow, or even blood vessels. We will explore a few of these things next week when we look deeper into autoimmune disorders.
Diagnosis is not an exact science either. The early stages of RA can be hard to catch since they mimic other arthritis conditions. A family history may be taken, blood tests may be performed to look for indicating markers, and x-rays may be taken to track the progression. There are many choices for treatment options, but the disease is not curable and medications simply reduce or stop symptoms.
For the early stages, over the counter pain medications may be all that are needed to reduce swelling and pain. Steroid shots can be prescribed to relieve acute symptoms, but are not a long term solution. The two most popular options are Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and Biologic agents. DMARDs can slow the actual progression of RA, but come with some nasty side effects to the liver and lungs. Biologics is a newer class of drugs that target the body’s trigger system for RA flares. However, you do put yourself at a higher risk for infection.
Needless to say, rheumatoid arthritis can be a very painful and lifelong disease, but it doesn’t have to stop you from living a full life. Early diagnosis and early treatment can help you battle RA and maintain and active and healthy lifestyle. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing joint pain. You hold your own future in your hands (or feet, in this case).