Medically, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is defined as a chronic inflammatory disease that damages the small joints in the feet and hands. Unlike osteoarthritis, which causes severe wear and tear in the patient’s joint tissues, rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of their joints. Patients with RA experience painful swelling around their joints. This painful swelling gradually can make them suffer from joint deformity, bone erosion and many other bone and joint abnormalities.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Causes
Clinical studies have revealed that RA occurs when an individual’s immune system attacks his/her synovium or synovial membrane (synovium is the medical term used for the soft tissue located between the synovial joints’ cavity and joint capsule). This makes the synovium thicker. The thickened synovium eventually invades the bones and cartilage within the joints and destroys them. The ligaments and tendons in the joints also stretch and become weaker.
To date, medical researchers have not yet identified the exact factor responsible for triggering the immune system to attack a rheumatoid arthritis patient’s synovium. However, many medical experts believe that a genetic component might be involved. However, genes do not act as direct rheumatic arthritis causes. They are believed to make people more at risk of being affected by environmental factors like infections with certain bacteria and viruses that might cause rheumatoid arthritis. If you have family members with rheumatoid arthritis, you are at higher risk of developing the condition compared to individuals who do not have any such family history. Smoking is another strong RA risk factor. While smoking cigarettes can increase your chances of having rheumatoid arthritis, the risk can be decreased substantially by quitting cigarettes.
Statistics suggest that currently around 1% of the people living on Earth are suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. It is estimated that 70 out of every 100,000 US residents have this inflammatory disorder. The numbers also show that women are more susceptible to developing RA compared to men. The disease affects women 3 times more frequently than men.
The majority of the cases of rheumatoid arthritis are diagnosed in people aged between 40 and 60 years. However, people younger or older than that can also become RA victims. The rheumatoid arthritis cases that occur in children below 16 years old are referred to as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA). JRA is marked by swelling, stiffness and pain in the joints. Some children experience these symptoms only for a few weeks or months, whereas others suffer from the condition throughout their lives. Some JRA types may lead to serious complications like eye inflammation and growth problems. Usually, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis treatment focuses on normalizing joint functions, pain management and joint damage prevention.
Rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis is made based on its symptoms, physical exams and tests like radiographs and blood tests.
Early Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Joint pain is the earliest rheumatoid arthritis symptom. Typically, rheumatoid arthritis symptoms start showing up slowly, as the disease progresses. The symptoms may take weeks or even months to show up prominently. Joint stiffness is another common early rheumatoid arthritis symptom. RA mostly affects symmetrical joints, i.e. same joints on both sides of the patient’s body. The body parts that are most affected by this inflammatory disorder include hands, wrists, elbows, neck, knees, feet and ankles. Some patients (around one-third) have rheumatoid nodules or bumps on their ailing joints. The size of these nodules may vary – you may have nodules that resemble a pea or a mothball. Besides abnormalities in joints, early signs of rheumatoid arthritis also include other physical irregularities like decreased appetite, weight loss, fatigue, numbness, mild fever and a tingling sensation around affected joints.
Medically, patients with early rheumatoid arthritis symptoms are said to be suffering from ‘undifferentiated arthritis’. The term ‘undifferentiated arthritis’ indicates that the symptoms experienced by the patient are not enough for confirming that the patient has rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors often struggle to decide whether a patient with undifferentiated arthritis should be treated conservatively or aggressively. Statistics suggest that 40-50% patients diagnosed with undifferentiated arthritis recover from the condition naturally within a few weeks. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs only in 30% of these patients. The remaining ones usually develop other rheumatic conditions.
Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis in Hands
- Soft lumps on the back of your affected hand – these lumps move whenever you straighten the fingers.
- You may experience creaking sounds (medically referred to as crepitus) while using the affected joint.
- Your fingers might move away from your thumb.
- Your fingers may become numb due to inflammation in the tendons.
- Severe rheumatoid arthritis may rupture your tendons, which can make straightening the ailing thumb or fingers absolutely impossible.
- Your thumb, wrist and finger joints can become unstable.
If you develop Boutonnière deformity, your fingers’ end joints can hyperextend and the middle joints can bend.
Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis in Legs
Initially, rheumatoid arthritis in ankles can cause difficulty in climbing stairs or other inclined surfaces. However, with time, the patient might start experiencing severe pain even while standing and walking.
Rheumatoid arthritis that affects the joints in your heels can slow down your feet’s side-to-side movement. As a result of this, you may find it difficult to walk on gravel, grass or uneven ground. Rheumatoid arthritis in heels can also cause flatfoot deformity.
Rheumatoid arthritis can weaken the ligaments that support your midfoot. The cartilage can also be damaged, which may cause severe pain. You may experience change in your foot’s shape. Extreme changes in your foot’s shape might even cause difficulty in wearing shoes. There are several instances when individuals with RA need to wear shoes specially made for them.
Rheumatoid arthritis can also affect your front foot. Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms that indicate the disease’s occurrence in the front foot are: claw toes, metatarsalgia and bunions.
Early diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis is extremely important if you want to avoid worsening of the rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. Rheumatoid arthritis treatment will need you to take medications and undergo therapies. If medications fail in slowing down or preventing joint damage, your physician may recommend surgery.