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As a chronic condition, rheumatoid arthritis has no cure. Those diagnosed must learn to effectively manage their pain and preserve their mobility in order to live independently for as long as possible.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic, chronic disease in which the synovial joints of the body, most commonly in the fingers, and the knees and hips, become inflamed. Over time, erosion of the bone occurs and nodules form under the skin, resulting in painful swelling and joint deformity. Rheumatoid arthritis has no cure. Treatment is focused on alleviating symptoms and heading off damage to the joints.

What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown, but it is an autoimmune disorder.  

Autoimmunity is your body's tolerance to its own cells, the way that your body knows where it ends and foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses begin.

When something happens to this tolerance, your body can stop recognizing its own cells and will begin to attack them, resulting in inflammation and destruction of the tissue it no longer recognizes.

Although, there isn't a clear genetic link for rheumatoid arthritis, your genes do seem to have some role in your chances of developing the disease. Native Americans, among other ethnic groups, have a higher rate of rheumatoid arthritis than the general population. Women of all ethnic groups are three times more likely to have the condition than men. And while rheumatoid arthritis can develop at any age, most people experience their first symptoms between the ages of 40 and 60.

The Symptoms

The most obvious symptom is joint pain, especially in the morning or after periods of rest.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease, though, so symptoms can develop throughout the body. Those living with the disease may also have fluid buildup in the lungs and within the heart. The disease can progress gradually over several months or symptoms can arise abruptly.

How to Treat Rheumatoid Arthritis

As a chronic condition, there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment is focused on managing the pain and trying to prevent or slow down the destruction of the joints.

The first line of defense is usually over-the-counter medication. NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) help to relieve both pain and inflammation. Long-term use can lead to serious side effects such as inflammation of the upper gastrointestinal tract and bleeding, especially in the elderly.

During flare-ups, your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid to relieve the worst of the symptoms before gradually tapering the medication off to avoid the serious possible side effects of osteoporosis, diabetes, and cataracts.

Many doctors will now begin aggressive therapy early on in the hopes of preventing erosion of the bone and loss of function in the joints. 
Medications in the disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs class (DMARDs) include hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) and methotrexate (Trexall) and must be taken for several months before their full effects are apparent. Powerful immunosuppressive drugs such as Cyclosporine and mycophenolate may be used in conjunction with DMARDs or other drugs to battle the systemic effects of rheumatoid arthritis, but these drugs can increase your risk of infection since they work by suppressing your immune system. Most radically, joint replacement surgery may be most helpful for some patients.
Continue reading after recommendations

  • Rheumatoid arthritis. (2001). In Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (pp.166-167, Edition 19). Philadelphia, PA: F. A. Davis Company.
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