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Rheumatoid Arthritis


What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a long-term autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and damage to your joints. RA causes your body's immune system to attack the synovial membrane (lining) in your joints. RA can also affect other organs, such as your eyes, heart, or lungs. It may also increase your risk for osteoporosis (weakened bones).

What increases my risk for RA?

  • Being a woman
  • A family history of RA
  • Age between 30 and 60 years old
  • Smoking cigarettes

What are the signs and symptoms of RA?

  • Joint pain and stiffness that lasts longer than 1 hour
  • Swollen joints in the same joint on both sides of your body
  • Loss of joint movement
  • Firm, round nodules (growths) on your joints
  • Fatigue or muscle weakness
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss

How is RA diagnosed?

  • Blood tests may be used to check for signs of infection or inflammation.
  • X-ray or MRI pictures may be taken of the bones and tissues in your joints. You may be given contrast liquid as a shot into the joint to help your joint show up better. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • Arthrocentesis is a procedure used to drain fluid out of a joint. The fluid is tested for infection or other problems that can cause arthritis.
  • Synovial biopsy may be used if your joint fluid cannot be drained or if you have signs of an infection. A piece of tissue is removed from the lining of a joint. The tissue is tested for possible causes of your arthritis.

How is RA treated?

  • Medicines:
    • Antirheumatics help slow the progress of RA, and reduce pain, stiffness, and inflammation.
    • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
    • Steroids: This medicine may be given to decrease inflammation.
    • Biologic therapy helps decrease joint swelling, pain, and stiffness. These medicines increase the risk of serious infection. Your healthcare provider will need to monitor you closely while you are taking these medicines.
  • Surgery may be done to take out all or part of the joint and put in an artificial joint. This may help reduce pain and repair the joint. Surgery may also be done if you have a joint infection or if the bones in your spine are pressing on nerves.

What can I do to manage my symptoms?

  • Go to physical and occupational therapy as directed. A physical therapist can teach you exercises to help improve movement and strength, and to decrease pain. An occupational therapist can teach you skills to help with your daily activities.
  • Use support devices as directed. You may be given splints to wear on your hands to help your joints rest and to decrease inflammation. While you sleep, use a pillow that is firm enough to support your neck and head.
  • Rest when needed. Rest is important if your joints are painful. Limit your activities until your symptoms improve. Gradually start your normal activities when you can do them without pain. Avoid motions and activities that cause strain on your joints, such as heavy exercise and lifting.
  • Use ice or heat. Both can help decrease swelling and pain. Ice may also help prevent tissue damage. Use an ice pack, or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel and place it on your joint for 15 to 20 minutes every hour or as directed. You can apply heat for 20 minutes every 2 hours. Heat treatment includes hot packs or heat lamps.
  • Physical activity can help increase strength and flexibility. Be as active as possible while avoiding things that increase your pain. Ask your healthcare provider or rheumatologist about the best exercise plan for you.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have increased joint swelling, pain, or redness.
  • You have sudden shortness of breath.
  • You lose feeling in your hands or feet.
  • You lose feeling on one side of your body.
  • You are not able to control the urge to have a bowel movement or to urinate.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • Your skin is itchy, swollen, or has a rash.
  • Your symptoms are getting worse, even with treatment.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

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