10 Ways Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects the Body
Living with RA
Although often mistaken for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that affects approximately 1.3 million Americans.
Along with joint pain and swelling, about four out of 10 people with RA have related problems in other body parts, says Eric Matteson, MD, professor of medicine and chair of the department of rheumatology at Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn.
RA can decrease life expectancy, but “with modern therapies, we are seeing less rheumatoid disease outside of the joints, and patients are living longer,” he says.
Following are ways in which RA affects the body and what you can do about it.
What helps: There are numerous medications that can help, and most aim to temper the immune system. Choices include chemotherapy, and anti-rheumatic and anti-inflammatory medications.
"The most important concept about the medications we have today is that when we recognize and diagnose RA, we start therapy as soon as we know what is going on," Dr. Matteson says.
The condition creates a chronic, low-grade inflammation that damages blood vessels and increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, heart disease, and heart failure, he says.
RA can also cause the pericardium, the sac-like structure around the heart, to become inflamed. This complication can produce sharp chest pain and fever, and if left untreated, can lead to thickening and scarring of the pericardium.
What helps: The treatment for heart problems and most other RA complications is to reduce inflammation through medication. If problems progress, a pacemaker may be necessary.
What helps: The best treatments are those that reduce the underlying inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is also associated with abnormalities of neurotransmitters and hormones that can affect how a person feels, he adds.
What helps: If people are depressed or have significant mood changes, antidepressants can be used to treat the symptoms, according to Dr. Matteson.
What helps: If blood vessels narrow significantly, patients may need to take steroids or undergo certain types of chemotherapy, which help reduce inflammation and tissue damage.
What helps: The best approach is to reduce the underlying inflammation and use medications that treat the neuropathy itself, according to Dr. Matteson.
What helps: Eye drops that contain anti-inflammatory medications are used to treat most rheumatoid arthritis–induced eye conditions.
What helps: Your doctor can help by treating the underlying RA condition. Surgical removal of the nodules is also an option.
What helps: Treating the underlying inflammation, resting or immobilizing the sore wrist with a splint, and applying cool packs. If the problem is persistent and problematic, consider surgery.
What helps: Treatment of the underlying RA condition, and, if necessary, administering injections to increase the white blood cell count.