Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that manifests itself mainly in joints throughout the body. Triggered by a faulty immune system, it commonly causes pain, swelling and redness, and can lead to progressive joint damage, disability and premature death. RA, a serious and life-altering disease affecting more than 1.5 million American adults.
According to Dr. Roshan Kotha, a rheumatologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, rheumatoid arthritis is a common disease that tends to affect women slightly more than men. The typical age at onset of symptoms is usually between 20 and 60 years of age; however, RA can occur at any age.
"Initially, RA tends to affect the small joints of the hands and feet, as well as the wrists," says Dr. Kotha. "If untreated, it can progress to nearly any joint, including the elbows, shoulders, knees, hips, ankles and the cervical spine. Less commonly, it can present by affecting these larger joints before affecting the smaller joints."
Dr. Kotha says symptoms of RA include pain, swelling, warmth and stiffness after rest. The stiffness usually lasts longer than 30 minutes and may be reduced by activity, heat and taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
According to Dr. Kotha, most patients will describe difficulty making a fist in the morning due to inflammation in the hands along with pain when walking due to inflammation in the toes. Other symptoms of RA include fatigue and weakness.
RA is a disease with systemic inflammation, and is not limited to the joints. It can also affect internal organs, including the heart, lungs and brain, if inflammation is left untreated. Fortunately, due to effective treatments, Dr. Kotha reports that these systemic complications of RA have decreased remarkably.
Although there is no cure for RA, the majority of sufferers will be able to have their symptoms controlled through medication. Furthermore, damage to the joints can be prevented if treatment, including disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, or DMARDs and/or biologics are started in a timely manner.
Dr. Kotha says that patients can also reduce symptoms and improve their condition through efforts at home.
"It is important to keep joints moving to improve stiffness," says Dr. Kotha. "As with any disease, a healthy lifestyle with proper nutrition and exercise as tolerated is beneficial to your overall well-being."
She says that the development of many effective treatments developed in the past two decades for RA have greatly controlled patients' symptoms and disease activity, have prevented joint damage, improved function and dramatically reduced the rates of disability and premature death related to rheumatoid arthritis.
For the media: To speak with Dr. Kotha about signs, symptoms and treatment for RA, contact Senior Public Relations Specialist Erica Carlson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was updated in May 2016.