While we may associate rheumatoid arthritis with old age, you may be surprised to learn that this is actually an autoimmune disorder and can affect people at any age. Are you at risk of rheumatoid arthritis? What treatments are available for those who are currently suffering from this debilitating illness?
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) – What is It?
RA is a chronic disorder in which the body attacks its own tissues, notably the synovial membrane, or protective lining of your joints. However, the damage is not limited to the joints, but this inflammatory condition can also affect the lungs, skin and eyes.
This ongoing attack on the joint membranes results in their thickening and serves to weaken the surrounding tendons and ligaments of the affected area. The impact of this weakness and swelling deforms the joint as it is gradually pushed out of alignment.
Risk Factors and Early Stages of RA
Are you at risk of developing RA? If you are a woman over the age of 40 with a family history of rheumatoid arthritis, then your risk is increased. In addition, should you be a smoker and are carrying excess weight, then your risk factor increases yet more. Exposure to certain toxins such as silica or asbestos appears to increase the probability of triggering this chronic illness, although the exact process is not completely clear yet.
We’ve all overdone it on the sports field or had a vigorous day in the garden or home, resulting in sore muscles or aching joints. At what point do these aches and pains turn into a ‘symptom’ which we should take to our doctor for investigation?
RA will manifest itself in several ways:
- Pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints, especially those in our hands and feet. This is more noticeable in the mornings or after a period of rest
- General fatigue
- Weight loss
- Redness and warmth of affected joints
- Limited range of motion
- Deformity of the joints
As with so many autoimmune illnesses, doctors are still uncertain as to the exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis. They do, however, suspect that a trigger in the form of certain viruses or bacteria can kick-start the disorder for those who have a genetic predisposition to RA.
Treatment Options for Rheumatoid Arthritis
The earlier RA is detected and treated – as with most ailments – the better your prognosis. A chronic illness such as this, however, has no known cure, so we are left managing symptoms and working to keep our bodies in a strong position to battle this internal enemy.
- Adequate sleep is essential for RA sufferers. With a compromised immune system, your body needs as much time as you can reasonably give it during its downtime to fix what it can, reduce inflammation, and rest tired and stressed joints. Unfortunately, many of the medications used for RA tend to negatively impact sleep patterns, notably corticosteroids which are prescribed to reduce inflammation and offer some pain relief.
- Exercise is vital in the battle against the malaise and fatigue as it strengthens muscles and increases your range of motion. Swimming, Tai chi or gentle walking or cycling are low impact sports which can be enjoyed with little pain and a low risk of damage to your tender body.
- Supplements such as fish oils or plant oils help to reduce inflammation in the body and increase blood flow.
One study noted the following: “Patients taking dietary supplements of fish oil exhibit improvements in clinical parameters of disease activity from baseline, including the number of tender joints, and these improvements are associated with significant decreases in levels of IL-1 beta from baseline. Some patients who take fish oil are able to discontinue NSAIDs without experiencing a disease flare.”
Furthermore, essential fatty acids in fish oil have been shown to reduce the severity of autoimmune diseases and assist with pain management.
- Ice packs and heating pads are a great way to assist with the pain and discomfort of RA. Heat and cold therapy can be used for a number of ailments, and it’s well worth chatting to your medical practitioner for tips on how to make effective use of this simple therapy.
Rheumatoid arthritis may be a chronic condition, but it is certainly manageable – especially when you work along with what your body needs in a natural and gentle form.