Before we talk about what you can do to manage and treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA), let’s be sure we’re all talking about the same condition. It’s not very common and is often confused with the much more common osteoarthritis, which is the result of wear and tear on joints. In contrast, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which is an illness that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues.
Early on, it may be tough to distinguish rheumatoid arthritis symptoms from those of other common illnesses. Fatigue and flulike symptoms and a general sense of not feeling well are common, as is significant weight loss. Other diseases with similar symptoms include lupus, Lyme disease and gout.
After this early stage, however, many people with RA experience chronic inflammation of the joints and often inflammation of the tissues around the joints, which causes swelling, pain, stiffness and redness. Unlike other types of arthritis, RA typically occurs in joints on both sides of the body (such as hands, wrists or knees). But RA affects people differently. For some, it lasts only a few months or a year. For others, periods in which they feel better (called remissions) alternate with periods of worsening symptoms (called flares). Only those with a severe form of the disease experience symptoms most of the time, for years or even a lifetime.
While there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis it is possible to effectively control the disease. The current medications — including methotrexate, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and anti-inflammatory agents such as steroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — are highly effective and should be part of an overall treatment program. In addition, dietary changes, exercise therapy and stress reduction can be effective in controlling pain and inflammation and slowing disease progression, especially in the early phases.