Everything you need to know about rheumatoid arthritis

BY Rachel Byng-Maddick

27th Sep 2023 Health

3 min read

Everything you need to know about rheumatoid arthritis
Dr Rachel Byng-Maddick, consultant rheumatologist at The Lister Hospital (part of HCA Healthcare UK), shares a comprehensive guide to rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder, which means that the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues, primarily the synovium; the lining of the membrane that surrounds joints. This immune response triggers inflammation in the synovium, causing it to thicken and swell. As a result, the affected joints can become painful, swollen, and stiff. Over time, this chronic inflammation can lead to joint damage, deformities, and reduced mobility.
"About one per cent of the population in the UK has rheumatoid arthritis"
RA is not rare; in fact, it is the UK’s second most common arthritis. About one per cent of the population in the UK has RA, which is more than 450,000 people in the UK. It can affect individuals of any age, but it most commonly develops between the ages of 40 and 60, or a bit older for men. Women are more likely to develop RA than men, with the condition being roughly two to three times more prevalent in females.

What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

  • Joint pain and stiffness: Persistent joint pain and stiffness, often in multiple joints, are the most common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. This pain is typically worse in the morning or after periods of inactivity.
  • Swelling and redness: Affected joints may become swollen, warm to the touch, and red due to inflammation.
  • Fatigue: Many people with RA experience severe fatigue, which can significantly impact daily life.
  • Morning stiffness: Morning stiffness lasting for more than an hour is a common early sign of RA.
  • Reduced range of motion: As the condition progresses, joint function can become limited, and patients may notice a decreased range of motion.
  • Joint deformities: Without proper management, RA can cause joint deformities, potentially making it challenging to perform everyday tasks.
  • Systemic symptoms: RA can also affect other organs and systems, leading to symptoms such as fever, weight loss, and eye inflammation.

Common myths about rheumatoid arthritis

Myth: RA only affects older people.
Fact: While RA is more common in middle-aged and older individuals, it can develop at any age, even in children.
Myth: RA is just a normal part of ageing.
Fact: RA is not a natural consequence of ageing. It is an autoimmune disease with specific causes and treatments.
Man seeing doctor for rheumatoid arthritis
Myth: RA is just joint pain.
Fact: RA is a systemic disease that can affect various organs and systems in the body, not just the joints.
Myth: Weather changes cause RA flare ups.
Fact: While some people with RA may be sensitive to weather changes, there is no conclusive scientific evidence linking weather to RA flare ups.
Myth: RA can be cured with dietary supplements.
Fact: There is no known cure for RA. While some dietary changes and supplements may help manage symptoms, they cannot cure the disease.

How to manage rheumatoid arthritis

  • Early diagnosis and treatment: Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial in managing RA effectively. Please speak to your GP or a consultant rheumatologist if you suspect you have RA to receive a proper diagnosis and so that you can start treatment promptly.
  • Medications: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), and biologic agents are commonly prescribed to reduce inflammation and control the disease.
  • Physical activity: Engage in regular, low-impact exercises like swimming, yoga, or walking to improve joint flexibility and muscle strength. Consult with a physical therapist to develop an exercise plan tailored to your needs.
  • Rest and joint protection: Balance activity with rest and use assistive devices or joint protection techniques to reduce strain on affected joints during daily tasks.
  • Pain management: Over-the-counter pain relievers or prescription medications can help alleviate pain. Discuss pain management options with your GP or a qualified medical expert.
  • Healthy diet: While no specific diet has been found to cure RA, maintaining a balanced and anti-inflammatory diet can help manage symptoms and promote overall health.
  • Stress management: Stress can exacerbate RA symptoms. It could be worth practicing stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, or mindfulness to improve your wellbeing.
  • Support and education: Join a support group or seek counselling to cope with the emotional challenges that can come with living with RA. There are lots of helpful resources online and in the media which can help educate people on RA and management of symptoms too.
  • Regular check-ups: Schedule regular check-ups with your rheumatologist to monitor its progression and adjust your treatment plan as needed.
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