Written & Researched By: Natalie Boquist
The Immune System
Our immune system has one of the most important jobs in keeping us alive: safeguarding against outside invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. It’s like an army of its own, utilizing soldiers (or, in our case, white blood cells) to fight against the invaders. But sometimes, the immune system can incorrectly categorize things as invaders that are really just normal cells.
What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. In the case of RA, the immune system attacks the synovium, which is the tissue that lines the inside of joints. In this condition, the immune system mistakes the healthy cells of the synovium for dangerous invaders, releasing inflammatory chemicals to attack those healthy cells. The synovium becomes inflamed, making the affected joints (most commonly hands, knees, and ankles) painful.
Other Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Other than swelling and pain in joints, rheumatoid arthritis causes many other reactions in the body. Many people with RA can be fatigued at times, and some can even have a low fever during a flare, an instance of severe inflammation and symptoms. The inflammation caused by RA can, without treatment, lead to erosion and permanent damage in the affected joints. RA can also affect vital organs like the heart and lungs. In particular, inflammation can damage muscles as well as cause shortness of breath and lung disease.
How does Rheumatoid Arthritis Affect Daily Life?
Many people living with RA wake up with stiff joints. When joints are immobile for a long period of time, such as during sleep, inflammation can increase around the joint. While fatigue is a common symptom of RA, many people can’t sleep late because the pain and stiffness wakes them up. RA can also make it painful to exercise, meaning a nutritious diet is a better way to maintain health. In addition, resting during the day is important in managing RA symptoms to help reduce pain and inflammation as well as combat fatigue. Overall, different days can feel different for people with RA, with some days being easier than others.
Treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis
The main goal of treatment of rheumatoid arthritis is to reduce symptoms and achieve remission — yes, RA can be put in remission! In most cases, medical professionals consider RA in remission when it is under control, with only one affected joint and reduced levels of inflammation. In order to get to this point, strategies include medication and physical therapy. Often, RA medications weaken the immune system to prevent attacks upon the synovium, which can cause the body to also become less immune to other infections. Therefore, patients consuming RA medication would not be able to fight off diseases like COVID-19. At times, if medication is not successful in controlling inflammation and joint damage continues, surgery is required to help restore joint ability.
As of now, rheumatoid arthritis affects over 1.5 million people in the US alone. This autoimmune disease, which leads to swelling and pain around major joints, can affect daily life significantly, but there are many treatment options to help control the symptoms.