Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is usually associated with pain and swelling in the joints. However, it can cause long-term damage throughout the body.
Unlike osteoarthritis, which is a wear-and-tear disease, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. This means that RA causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue as though it were diseased tissue. RA is also an inflammatory disease, meaning that it causes inflammation in healthy tissue. Finally, RA is a systemic disease, meaning that the inflammation it causes can wreak havoc throughout the body, particularly if the disease is untreated.
The inflammation of RA can affect different parts of the body in a variety of ways.
Although RA is usually associated with the joints in the hands and feet, it can also affect joints throughout the body, including the spine, the neck, the shoulders, the hips, the knees, and the ankles.
RA usually targets the synovium, the lining of the joints, inflaming it and causing it to swell. This leads to pain and stiffness in the affected joint. The inflammation also causes the cartilage between the bones to break down, causing severe pain and permanent damage in those with advanced RA.
The inflammation of RA can compress nerves, particularly in the hands or feet. If RA attacks the wrist, it can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.
Psychological and neurological symptoms, such as depression, brain fog, and behavioral or cognitive changes, can occur with RA. These are sometimes a result of nerve compression due to inflammation in the joints, or may result from systemic inflammation throughout the body. Medications for RA may also lead to cognitive issues.
RA can cause life-threatening inflammation in the heart and blood vessels. Untreated, RA can lead to anemia, headaches, and fatigue. RA’s inflammation can damage the blood vessels, allowing plaque to build up more easily inside the arteries, leading to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. The lining of the heart can also become inflamed, causing chest pain.
RA affects the lungs 80% of the time, though it is not usually severe enough to cause symptoms. Some people, however, have enough lung inflammation to develop pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of the lung tissue which can cause breathing difficulties.
RA can cause osteoporosis, which is a loss of bone density and increase in bone brittleness. As is common with osteoporosis, it can lead to an increased risk of bone fracture.
RA is a progressive disease, and if left untreated, the symptoms will increase in severity, spread to other parts of the body, or both.
The most important action someone with RA can take is to see a doctor who will tailor a treatment plan for their symptoms. The plan should maximize the person’s mobility, while minimizing their pain and slowing the progression of their disease.
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