Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA): Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Meaning

Dr. Sneha Ganatra
November 17, 2020

When it comes to medical conditions that affect the body, there are those that have a defined cause and some that are categorised as autoimmune diseases. In the case of the latter, the body’s immune mistakenly attacks healthy cells, often resulting in targeted damage to one organ or inflammation in several areas. Rheumatoid arthritis is one such autoimmune disease, which exhibits common characteristics of rheumatism, meaning the patient can experience local inflammation of joints and/or generalised conditions of said joints.

In medical parlance, the term rheumatism no longer has a specific meaning but this isn’t the case with rheumatology. Meaning, numerous patients the world over benefit from rheumatology departments as conditions like rheumatoid arthritis have no cure and patients rely medical personnel to manage the symptoms. Further, for those afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis, it can be quite hard to differentiate the early signs of the disease from those of other conditions. In such cases, being informed about the condition is your best hope, as it points you in the right direction and can push you to get an early diagnosis.

Here are pointers to help you better understand the rheumatoid arthritis meaning, its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Simply put, rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic, chronic, progressive autoimmune disease. It primarily affects the joints on both sides of the body, but can also cause damage to range of systems in the body. Here, inflammation affects the lining of the joints, which then leads to joint deformity and bone erosion. Over time, this inflammation can affect other parts as well and lead to physical disabilities.

Rheumatoid arthritis presents in 4 stages. These are listed below with inputs from MedicineNet:

  • Stage I: Early rheumatoid arthritis, no damage on X-rays but signs of bone thinning
  • Stage II: Moderate progressive, minor cartilage damage with possible bone damage, atrophy of muscle, joint mobility issues, and abnormalities in soft tissue around joints
  • Stage III: Severe progression, presence of bone thinning and cartilage and joint damage around joint, extensive muscle atrophy, joint deformity but without any permanent stiffness or fixation.
  • Stage IV: Terminal progression, permanent stiffness or fixation, joint deformity, osteoporosis and bone and cartilage damage around joint, extensive muscle atrophy.

Rheumatoid arthritis causes

When trying to understand the cause of rheumatoid arthritis, you should note that there are varying theories. Some experts believe that genetic factors may leave you susceptible to infections or other factors that may trigger the condition. However, once it occurs, the lining of the membranes around the joints known as synovium gets inflamed and thick. This ultimately affects the bone and cartilage of the joint adversely.

As mentioned, there are factors that could increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. Here is a list of these for reference.

  1. Family history
  2. Exposure to asbestos or silica
  3. Virus infection such as the Epstein-Barr Virus
  4. Obesity
  5. Past trauma or injury
  6. Chronic periodontal disease
  7. Smoking coupled with family history
  8. Gender: Women have a higher risk as compared to men
  9. Age: Middle-aged people are at a higher risk

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms

Before learning about the different symptoms that one may experience, it is very important to note that many of these will not persist. With rheumatoid arthritis, it is only during inflammation that the disease is active, and these periods are called flares. Alternatively, these will subside during remission or will present in a much milder form. As per insights from MedicineNet, here are the symptoms you can expect when the disease is active.

  • Joint redness
  • Low-grade fever
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Lack of appetite
  • Joint swelling
  • Loss of range of motion of joints
  • Limping
  • Joint deformity
  • Loss of joint function
  • Joint tenderness
  • Rheumatoid nodules
  • Anaemia
  • Frustration
  • Depression
  • Stiffness
  • Fatigue

It is important to note that most of the symptoms linked to muscles or joints may worsen in the morning or after extended periods of inactivity. This is termed as post-sedentary stiffness.

Rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis

Given the different stages through which this condition progresses, diagnosis can be quite a lengthy process. It will include a battery of tests including X-rays, physical examinations, and even blood tests. To start, doctors will first examine your patient history and perform a physical check of your joints. At this stage, any family history of the condition coupled with join discomfort will help with reaching a final diagnosis quickly.

During the physical examination, doctors will:

  • Look for redness and swelling
  • Test your muscle reflexes and strength
  • Examine range of motion and joint function
  • Check joints for tenderness and deformity
  • Verify the presence of rheumatoid nodules

If there is cause for concern, you may be required to undergo a series of imaging tests to check for joint damage and its severity. Finally, blood tests are also part of diagnosis and there are at least 5 different types:

  • Rheumatoid factor test
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate
  • Antinuclear antibody test
  • Anticitrullinated protein antibody test
  • C-reactive protein test

Many of these tests check for factors that are associated with rheumatoid arthritis and give doctors a clearer picture of the stage it has progressed to.

Managing chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis can be quite challenging, especially since it hinders physical capabilities. However, given the fact that remissions are possible, and quite frequent for many, these are windows of relief one can enjoy. During such stages, it is absolutely crucial that you do all you can to minimise the damage. Even with medication, exercise is key as strengthening the affected areas can prove helpful. Otherwise, rheumatoid arthritis can have serious complications like joint deformation. A good way to avoid this is to have the right medical assistance all through and with the Bajaj Finserv Health app, you can find the best doctors at your fingertips.

This online tool allows you to make the most of technology and healthcare. With it, you can find the best specialists around you and book appointments at their clinics online, minimising the need for multiple physical visits. Moreover, if you need remote care, you can use the app to consult with your doctor virtually over video. For conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, this feature can come in handy, especially in the more severe stages. To start your digital healthcare journey today, download the app for free from Google Play or the Apple App store.