What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease that inflames the lining of the joints (synovial tissue).
It can also damage other parts of the body including your eyes, skin, and organs. It causes pain, swelling, stiffness, weakness and restricted movement.
RA is a highly disabling disease, and without treatment, it can eventually lead to joint shifting, deformities, bone erosion, and loss of function in the joints.
What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?
RA occurs when your immune system attacks a thin layer of tissue called synovium that lines the space in the joint where there is no cartilage.
The thickened and inflamed tissue will then eventually wear down the cartilage and bone in the joint.
The tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together will weaken and stretch, gradually causing the joint to shift out of alignment.
It is unknown what causes RA, but risk factors to be aware of that can lead to rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Gender – women are three times more likely than men to get RA
- Age – RA is more likely to occur in middle age, though it can happen at any age
- Family history/genetics
- Environmental exposures such as asbestos and dust (silica), and air pollution
- Smoking – especially if you have a genetic predisposition for developing RA
- Diet high in sodium and red meat
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis?
At first, RA most commonly affects the smaller joints in the wrist, hands and feet. As the condition progresses, symptoms often spread to the ankles, knees, hips, elbows and shoulders.
Common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Painful or swollen joints
- Stiffness in the joints that is usually worse in the mornings and after periods of inactivity
- Muscle weakness
- Restricted mobility
- Pain in the spine
As RA can affect other body systems such as salivary glands, nerve tissue, bone marrow and blood vessels, other symptoms that don’t relate to the joints can be experienced.
RA also increases your risk of developing many diseases including:
- Lymphoma and other cancers
- Lung disease
- Heart disease
- Increased risk of infections
- Sjogren’s syndrome (dry eyes and mouth)
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Rheumatoid nodules (firm bumps of tissue)
- Psoriasis and other skin conditions
Symptoms may come and go at first, but if they persist, it is important to see a physiotherapist.
How is Rheumatoid Arthritis Treated?
Treatments for rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) – studies have shown that when diagnosed and treated early, rheumatoid arthritis can be slowed down; however, DMARDs can increase the risk of infections
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that reduce inflammation and pain
Most drugs used to treat RA carry the risk of serious side effects. If the disease has progressed to the point of joint damage, surgery may be required; that is why early detection and treatment is crucial.
Physiotherapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Physiotherapy is a drug-free and non-surgical treatment that focuses on reducing pain and swelling, improving your range of motion and joint function, and preventing or controlling joint damage.
Depending on your individual needs, physiotherapy for rheumatoid arthritis can include:
- Exercises to help keep your joints flexible and muscles strong
- Learning new ways to perform daily tasks to make it easier on your joints
- Interferential current therapy (IFC)
- Therapy or compression gloves
- Massage therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Assistive devices to make daily living easier such as a cane or raised toilet seat
- Patient education so you can feel in control of your condition
Can Rheumatoid Arthritis Go Away on Its Own?
Unfortunately, no. There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, and it will eventually lead to disability and other complications if left untreated.
However, physiotherapy has been shown to play an integral role in pain relief and slowing progression of the disease while improving balance, endurance, strength, fatigue and quality of life.
Can You Prevent Rheumatoid Arthritis?
You can try to prevent RA, or if you have it, manage it by:
- Exercising regularly, such as tai chi (studies have found that tai chi reduces stress and improves mood and quality of life for people living with RA)
- Reducing stress
- Applying heat and cold therapy
- Eating an anti-inflammatory diet including fish and omega-3 fatty acids, or a fish oil supplement
As RA can affect all aspects of your life, depression and anxiety can set in. Take time for yourself to do the things you love, and connect with other people who have RA for support.
Book a Physiotherapist Consult for Rheumatoid Arthritis Today
Concerned about symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis? Book an assessment with a physiotherapist today.