Fast Facts on Rheumatoid Arthritis
An overview of the autoimmune disease.

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Fast Facts on Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a type of arthritis that affects more than 1.3 million Americans. Seventy-five percent are women.

What is it?
Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, is an autoimmune disease that attacks healthy tissue around the joints. It causes pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of function in the joints. It is most common in the wrist and fingers. It can also affect other parts of the body, including the eyes and lungs.

The cause of RA is unknown. It can start at any age.

Genes may play a role in the possibility of someone getting the disease. But researchers say genetics is not the only factor. Environmental triggers may also prompt the disease. Hormones may influence it, too.

Common symptoms
Symptoms may come and go and vary in intensity. Some common symptoms are:

  • Swollen and tender joints
  • Inflammation often in the wrist and hands
  • Fatigue
  • Fevers and generally not feeling well
  • Pain and stiffness in the morning lasting longer than 30 minutes

"People may experience an inability to perform daily tasks," says Dr. Joel Kremer, a spokesperson for the American College of Rheumatology. He is also Pfaff Family Professor of Medicine at Albany Medical College. The swelling, pain and discomfort limit the motion of a person's joints, he says.

RA can be difficult to diagnose. There is no one test for the disease. Symptoms may be more severe in one person than in another. These are a few ways RA is diagnosed:

  1. History. This includes a patient's family history and his or her history of symptoms and how those symptoms have affected daily life.
  2. Examination. A patient will have a physical exam. The doctor will test reflexes and muscle strength. He or she will also look at painful joints and listen to the patient's lungs.
  3. Tests. These include blood tests and X-rays. Blood tests look at antibodies and white blood cells. A doctor may also order an X-ray to look at the joints.

Treatment varies by individual. There is no single treatment for the disease. The goals for treatment are to:

  • Reduce inflammation
  • Relieve pain
  • Slow or stop joint damage
  • Improve a patient's well-being and ability to function

Doctors use lifestyle changes and medicine to treat patients. In some cases, a patient may need surgery.

Rest is important for people with RA because it helps limit inflammation in the joints. Rest may also help people manage stress. Patients may feel stress from being in pain or facing challenges from their disease each day.

No dietary supplement has been shown to have clear treatment benefits for RA. However, there is preliminary evidence for a few, including fish oil. In general, people with RA should check with their doctor before using any supplement.

Kremer says that a variety of studies show fish oil supplements may help with tender joints and morning stiffness. Supplements are used in addition to medical treatment, not instead of it, he says.

"Fish oil is a very potent substance," Kremer says. It helps reduce inflammation in the body.

Fish oil may lessen the need to take NSAIDs or other medicines for RA. However, the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil may make blood clot more slowly. Therefore, people who take medicines that affect clotting, such as anticoagulants, should check with their doctor before using fish oil. It is uncertain if people who are allergic to fish or shellfish can safely take fish oil supplements.

Some products from fish liver oils may contain vitamins A and D, which can be toxic in large doses.

Kremer says lifestyle is always important. "Patients with RA should eat a balanced diet and exercise," he says. This applies to everyone, but is also important for RA.

Speak with your doctor to learn more about RA treatment and care. Consult with him or her before making care decisions.

By Jennifer Mitchell, Editor
Created on 04/22/2013
Updated on 04/22/2013
  • National Institutes of Health. Rheumatoid arthritis.
  • National Institutes of Health. Handout on health: rheumatoid arthritis.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. Rheumatoid arthritis and complementary health approaches.
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