Rheumatoid Arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disorder that usually affects the body’s smaller joints such as those in the neck, hands, feet, ankles and wrists. The cause of this disorder is unknown and on-going research into the culprit, or culprits, is intense. Scientists agree there is an hereditary element as certain genes have been identified as being present in most sufferers, but other agents such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and environmental factors are also believed to trigger the disease.
While osteoarthritis is caused by general wear and tear on the body, in rheumatoid arthritis the body’s immune system attacks the lining of the joints by producing excess synovial fluid which causes joints to become red and swollen. Over time this will wear and distort cartilage and bone. It can also lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and inflammation in the body’s organs such as the heart, lungs, eyes, skin, blood vessels and saliva glands.
It is important to diagnose Rheumatoid Arthritis as early as possible because, although there is no cure, early treatment can slow and control the disease. Early symptoms include:
- Stiffness, especially in the mornings when you may be aware of a throbbing / aching pain. Whilst this is also the case with osteoarthritis, in the case of the latter the pain will usually wear off by the time the patient has been moving around for half an hour, while the pain lasts longer with RA.
- Feelings of fatigue
- A general feeling of being unwell
- Weight loss in some people
Although there are no definitive blood markers for rheumatoid arthritis, blood tests will usually reveal changes in levels of some of the standard blood test parameters. A faster ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate) as well as elevated levels of inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein are all common in rheumatoid arthritis. Other tests can also show if there is rheumatoid factor present in the blood or antibodies to anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (CCP) - both of which are common in rheumatoid arthritis but can't be considered to be a definitive marker because not all people with rheumatoid arthritis have them. They can be helpful though as people who test positive for both rheumatoid factor and anti-CCP could develop a more serious form of rheumatoid arthritis.
Anaemia is also common in people with rheumatoid arthritis and blood tests will show this.
Finally x rays and scans of the joints can be used to diagnose the type of arthritis, how far the disease has progressed and if there is any severe joint damage.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects 1% of the population with three times the number of women compared to men developing RA. The condition usually develops gradually with only a quarter of patients being under 30 when they develop RA, the most common age range is 40 to 60 years. For most patients the disease will vary over time with occasional flare-ups followed by more tranquil periods.