Millions of people every year suffer from some form of arthritis. These people suffer from joint stiffness and pain that makes life difficult at times.
While there are many types of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or RA is the most common type of arthritis caused by an autoimmune disorder. While this is a painful condition, it is possible to live a full and active life after receiving this diagnosis. Lifestyle changes, medication and eating foods that help manage RA can all help reduce chronic pain.
What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
RA is an autoimmune disorder that affects over 1 million people in the United States today. Autoimmune disorders occur when cells in the body’s immune system become faulty and attack healthy cells.
With RA, it attacks the joints in the body. In particular, it attacks the lining of the joints. This attack results in the joint lining becoming thicker, which eventually leads to the joint’s destruction. If left alone, RA will stretch the joint’s tendons causing misalignment.
While this disease can affect anyone, it is most common in women. 75 percent of those who receive a diagnosis of RA are female. It can appear at any age, but is most common after the age of 40. RA is a chronic, progressive disease that can worsen in severity over time. The exact cause of RA is not known, but is thought to be genetic or caused by factors in the environment.
Warning Signs of RA
Rheumatoid arthritis causes joint stiffness much like other types of arthritis such as osteoarthritis. However, when RA is present, the small joints in the hands and feet are likely affected. These joints become stiff, painful and at times red. Affected joints can also feel hot when the skin is touched. RA can also affect knees, hips, wrists, elbows and ankles as well.
Early morning stiffness is also a warning sign of RA. While many types of arthritis cause morning stiffness, those with RA tend to stay stiff for longer periods of time.
Some other signs and symptoms include low-grade fever, lack of appetite, energy loss, dry eyes and dry mouth. Those who suffer from RA may also develop cysts just underneath the skin in the hands or elbows. These are often the tell-tale symptom that helps doctors confirm an RA diagnosis, as it does not occur in any other type of arthritis.
RA can be difficult to diagnose because it often starts with vague symptoms. As these symptoms worsen over time, it may become more apparent that RA exists. If a primary physician feels RA may be the issue, the patient is referred to a rheumatologist for an examination.
While there is no simple test that confirms an RA diagnosis, doctors can use a variety of diagnostic tests to confirm it. Blood tests to check for anemia, anti-CCP antibodies and the rheumatoid factor can all help diagnose RA. X-rays, CT scans and MRI’s may not show joint changes early on, but may be useful to determine the extent of joint damage from RA as time goes on.
There is no known cure for rheumatoid arthritis at this time. However, there are treatments that can greatly reduce the pain and inflammation it causes. Receiving an early diagnosis of RA is key to managing pain and reducing joint damage. The goals doctors hope to achieve during treatment include:
- Reducing long term side effects
- Lessening pain
- Increasing joint mobility
- Improving the patient’s quality of life
It is likely treatment will begin by using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAID’s. These medicines work to reduce inflammation and pain. Some types are available over-the-counter and some require a prescription. These medications are not typically used for long periods of time because they can cause stomach problems, heart problems, liver damage and kidney issues in some people.
Doctors often prescribe medications known as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs. Certain types of DMARD medications must be injected and require strict monitoring by doctors.
Corticosteroid medications such as Prednisone are often used to reduce joint pain. These come in pills, liquids or shot form. Steroids can cause unpleasant side effects such as high blood pressure, weight gain, moodiness and swelling of the legs.
Physical therapy is often very effective in reducing the pain associated with RA. Therapists teach patients how to do low-impact exercises that can reduce pain over time. While many people are afraid to exercise, it can make a huge difference in pain levels if done correctly. Physical therapists can also teach patients ways to perform activities of daily living in ways that do not exacerbate pain.
In some cases of RA, surgery may be required. This is usually reserved for those who have severe pain that cannot be resolved with medication or therapy. When RA is severe, it causes damage to joints that cannot be reversed. It may be necessary to perform joint replacement surgery, which removes damaged joints and replaces it with a prosthetic joint. In cases where joint replacements are not an option, doctors can choose to fuse joints together.
If tendons are damaged, doctors may be able to repair them during surgery. This often lessens pain and allows patients to have increased joint flexibility.
Natural Treatment Methods
Research suggests that eating certain foods can help manage RA. Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids are known to have joint soothing properties. Some examples of these foods include fish such as tuna, salmon, sardines and caviar. Nuts such as almonds and walnuts are also a great source of this acid. Certain types of vegetables contain higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than others. Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and soybeans are all high in this joint protecting substance. Using oils rich in Omega-3 can also reduce RA symptoms. Flaxseed oil and salmon oil are two good options. Since rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition, it can cause a deficiency in Omega-3 fatty acids. Some other conditions can also cause a deficiency, such as inflammatory bowel disease and Celiac disease. One important fact to note is that foods that contain omega 6 fatty acids, such as corn and soybean oils can actually make RA inflammation worse. So it’s important to distinguish the two.
Another ingredient that has proven to help manage RA is turmeric. Turmeric is a yellow-colored powder ground from the root of the turmeric plant which grows in India. Turmeric is in the same family as ginger and is also a common ingredient in curries. Turmeric is known to reduces pain, inflammation and stiffness related to rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Home Treatment Methods
Treating rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t stop at medical help and adjusting one’s diet. There are a few treatments that can be done at home which help in alleviating symptoms.
While getting a good night’s sleep is important for everyone, it is crucial for RA sufferers. Not getting enough sleep can make it difficult to deal with the pain caused by RA, which can lead to increased flare ups. Aim for eight hours of sleep every night. Don’t stress if you can’t always hit those recommended eight hours during the night as an afternoon nap can help.
If you’re looking for something to help deal with inflammation and pain reduction – try a nice warm bath with Epsom salts. Giving your sore joints a nice soak can offer some much need pain relief. If you don’t have the time for a bath, placing a heating pad or ice pack on the affected joints for 10-15 minutes works too.
Staying active and mobile through exercising regularly is a great way to reduce stiffness in affected joints. Considering the intense stress that RA puts on your joints, it’s best to focus on low stress activities such as walking, cycling, aqua sports, and stretching. Just make sure to avoid exercising while your joints are inflamed.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition that can be difficult to control. People with this disease are at an increased risk for stroke and heart attack than those who do not have it. This makes it important to gain control of RA early on if possible.
Those with RA may find comfort in counseling and support groups. It is often helpful to talk with others who are experiencing the same challenges and symptoms. Joining a gym or exercise group can also help reduce RA symptoms and provide a feeling of well-being for those who suffer from it.
Suffering from rheumatoid arthritis does not have to make life unpleasant. Finding a doctor who is experienced in dealing with RA is an important part of getting ahead of the disease. Once symptoms are well-controlled, it is possible to go on to lead a happy and healthy life.