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What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

In the United States, 23 percent of all adults, or over 54 million people, have arthritis. It is a leading cause of disability. The annual direct medical costs are at least 81 billion.

Arthritis commonly occurs with other chronic diseases. About half of US adults with heart disease or diabetes and one-third of people who are obese also have arthritis. Having arthritis and other chronic conditions can reduce quality of life and make disease management harder.

The term arthritis refers to more than 100 diseases and conditions affecting the joints. The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, but another type that affects both young and old alike is rheumatoid arthritis.

An inflammatory, autoimmune disease

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease that causes pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints. It can cause mild to severe symptoms. Rheumatoid arthritis not only affects the joints, but may also attack tissue in the skin, lungs, eyes, and blood vessels. People with rheumatoid arthritis may feel sick, tired, and sometimes feverish.

Rheumatoid arthritis is classified as an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system turns against parts of the body it is designed to protect.

Rheumatoid arthritis generally occurs in a symmetrical pattern. This means that if one knee or hand is involved, the other one is, too. It can occur at any age, but usually begins during a person’s most productive years.

Affects more women than men

Rheumatoid arthritis occurs much more frequently in women than in men. About two to three times as many women as men have the disease.

Effects vary

Rheumatoid arthritis affects people differently. Some people have mild or moderate forms of the disease, with periods of worsening symptoms, called flares, and periods in which they feel better, called remissions. Others have a severe form of the disease that is active most of the time, lasts for many years or a lifetime, and leads to serious joint damage and disability.

Although rheumatoid arthritis is primarily a disease of the joints, its effects are not just physical. Many people with rheumatoid arthritis also experience issues related to

  • depression, anxiety.
  • feelings of helplessness.
  • low self-esteem.

Rheumatoid arthritis can affect virtually every area of a person’s life from work life to family life. It can also interfere with the joys and responsibilities of family life and can affect the decision to have children.

Treatment can help

Fortunately, current treatment strategies allow most people with the disease to lead active and productive lives. These strategies include pain-relieving drugs and medications that slow joint damage, a balance between rest and exercise, and patient education and support programs. In recent years, research has led to a new understanding of rheumatoid arthritis and has increased the likelihood that, in time, researchers will find even better ways to treat the disease.

Information courtesy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

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