It's a consequence of "bone resorption"—here's what that means.

By Maggie O'Neill
December 11, 2019

A powerful photo is making rounds on the internet, showing the painful reality of those living with rheumatoid arthritis.

The image, which is actually an X-ray of a 69-year-old woman's hands, was published Wednesday in a case report in the New England Journal of Medicine. The woman, who had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) 18 years earlier, presented to a rheutmatology clinic for the treatment of severe joint deformities, per the case report. Her elbows, wrists, knees, and left ankle were all swollen, and she'd lost her ability to make a fist with her hands due to her condition. 

The woman also presented with a phenomenon called "telescoping fingers," which is a consequence of "bone resorption," or the breakdown of bone in the body on a cellular level. This ultimately causes bones in the hand to become shorter and instable, which can also lead to the collapse of the soft tissue of the fingers. The case report says this patient did, in fact, present with shortened fingers.

While doctors were able to reduce the amount of pain the patient’s RA caused her (by way of a combination of four different medications), the patient did not regain hand functionality.

NEJM

RELATED: 10 Ways Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects the Body

What is rheutmatoid arthritis?

About 1.5 million people in the United States have RA, according to the Arthritis Foundation. The autoimmune condition causes swelling, stiffness, pain, and loss of joint function, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (USNLM). More women than men live with rheumatoid arthritis, and it commonly strikes during middle age. Some people who have rheumatoid arthritis experience symptoms for only a short time, but severe cases can last for the duration of one’s life.

RELATED: How Rheumatoid Arthritis Differs From Osteoarthritis

Because RA is an autoimmune condition—which means its the result of the body's immune system attacking its own tissues—it doesn’t strictly affect the joints; it can affect the eyes, lungs, and mouth too.

According to the USNLM, it's still unknown what causes RA, but experts believe number of factors might contribute, including environment, hormones, and genes. Rheumatoid arthritis is treated via surgery, medicine, and lifestyle changes; these can reduce swelling and pain and halt joint damage, but there's currently no known cure for the condition.

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