Although often mistaken for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that affects approximately 1.3 million Americans.Along with joint pain and swelling, about four out of 10 people with Rheumatoid Arthritis have related problems in other body parts, says Eric Matteson, MD, professor of medicine and chair of the department of rheumatology at Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn.Rheumatoid Arthritis can decrease life expectancy, but “with modern therapies, we are seeing less rheumatoid disease outside of the joints, and patients are living longer,” he says.Following are ways in which Rheumatoid Arthritis affects the body and what you can do about it.
What happens: Rheumatoid arthritis often starts in the small joints of the hands and feet but can progress to other parts of the body. Pain is often worse in the morning and is sometimes symmetrical (you have it in both hands, for example). What helps: There are numerous medications that can help, and most aim to temper the immune system. Choices include chemotherapy, and anti-rheumatic and anti-inflammatory medications. “The most important concept about the medications we have today is that when we recognize and diagnose RA, we start therapy as soon as we know what is going on,” Dr. Matteson says.
What happens: People with Rheumatoid Arthritis have twice the risk of having a heart problem as those without it, according to Dr. Matteson. The condition creates a chronic, low-grade inflammation that damages blood vessels and increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, heart disease, and heart failure, he says.Rheumatoid Arthritis can also cause the pericardium, the sac-like structure around the heart, to become inflamed. This complication can produce sharp chest pain and fever, and if left untreated, can lead to thickening and scarring of the pericardium. What helps: The treatment for heart problems and most other Rheumatoid Arthritis complications is to reduce inflammation through medication. If problems progress, a pacemaker may be necessary.