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What you should know about rheumatoid arthritis

To mark Rheumatoid Arthritis Week, we asked the experts to explain this painful condition and how it can be treated.

By Susan Griffin

 Arthritis

Unless you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or have witnessed a close friend or family member with the condition, it’s difficult to comprehend how debilitating the disease can be.

Rheumatoid arthritis is often misunderstood and commonly confused with osteoarthritis. But unlike that condition, which is commonly a wear and tear degenerative disease that generally affects the older population, RA can affect people of any age.

That’s just one of many misconceptions, along with the fact that nothing can be done to ease symptoms.

So to highlight Rheumatoid Awareness Week (which runs from 19-25 June), it’s time to examine the facts and debunk some of the long-held myths along the way.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, progressive and disabling autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the joint tissue causing inflammation, stiffness, pain and extreme fatigue.

Although the hands, feet and wrists are most commonly affected, it can affect any joint and if left untreated, the joint can lose its shape and alignment and lead to permanent disability.

It’s thought that around 690,000 people in the UK – that’s 1% of the population – have RA with around three quarters of people first diagnosed when of working age and women being three times as likely as men to have the disease.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

It’s nothing to do with lifestyle choices but like anything, if you smoke or are overweight, you’ve got a slightly increased risk.

Some also say there’s also a strong genetic factor, and other environmental factors that might play a bit of a role but probably it’s some sort of infection acquired and it’s your response to it.

What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

Symptoms of RA include the three Ss: symmetry, stiffness and swelling. These can be painful, debilitating and progress rapidly, and have a devastating impact on the lives of patients and their families.

Those who suffer from it can find what was once the simplest of tasks, like getting out of a car or a chair, extremely difficult and painful.

Early assessment and diagnosis, combined with the right treatment, can effectively control RA, leading to a more normal life for patients than has ever been possible.

 

How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?

RA is diagnosed using a series of tests including a physical examination, joint imaging and blood tests.

The progressive nature of RA means that without treatment, patients can suffer from irreversible joint damage and disability.

For this reason, primary care professionals must refer people with suspected persistent synovitis (active inflammation in a joint) to a rheumatology service within three working days of presentation.

Patients should then be seen by this service within three weeks of referral and offered a treatment within six weeks.

If you have the symptoms, get to your GP and you should get urgent, early referral to a specialist who has the appropriate facilities to do the drug tests and scans and can confirm the diagnosis.

Is there a cure?

There is no known cure for RA. The goal of clinicians and nurses is to ensure that people with RA are ‘pain free’. Uncontrolled RA is painful and learning to cope with chronic (long-lasting) pain may be the biggest challenge a patient with RA will face.

[Read more: Hairdresser beats the pain of arthritis by eating vegetables]

Can lifestyle changes help?

There are many things that people with RA can do to help reduce the pain they experience, such as meditation and relaxation, distraction (as focusing on pain makes it worse, not better), heat, cold, and massage can provide some quick relief for mild symptoms, and exercise, especially swimming, is particularly beneficial, along with a Mediterranean diet.

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