What exactly is rheumatoid arthritis? Not many know, says one patient

Jan. 22, 2013, 3:08 p.m.

The fingers are a common source of pain and discomfort for folks with arthritis, but joint pain is just one symptom of rheumatoid arthritis. (Rob van Hilten/Flickr Creative Commons)

They may sound similar, but arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are starkly different conditions.

Arthritis is what happens when joint cartilage breaks down. Cartilage is a connective tissue which allows joints to move smoothly and absorb shock – like when you take a step, for example. When this cartilage begins to deteriorate, bones start to rub together, which causes pain.

Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body itself mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, thus attacking itself. While folks with regular arthritis experience swollen joints, some stiffness and a reduced ability to move a joint, R.A., as it's called, is more severe. With the latter, joint pain is often felt on the same joint on both sides of the body, whether it's in the wrists, fingers, knees, feet or ankles. Morning stiffness that lasts more than an hour is common, and over time, joints may lose their range of motion and even become deformed.

There are also more symptoms that generally aren't associated with joint pain: dry eyes and mouth; itchy or burning eyes that may emit a discharge; nodules under the skin, numb or tingling hands and feet, difficulty sleeping; or chest pain while breathing.

Add to that a list of potentially devastating complications: The risk of lung tissue damage, hardened arteries, spinal injuries, blood vessel inflammation and congestive heart failure often rises with the onset of the disease.

All that is to say R.A. isn't your average case of joint pain. But the National Library of Medicine, for example, lists it as a type of arthritis, which some say results in a generally dismissive attitude about the seriousness of the disease.

Kelly Young, the founder of the Rheumatoid Patient Foundation, is one of those people. She has R.A., and describes how it feels much more succinctly than any medical encyclopedia could.

"It's as if you're living with the flu and a couple of sprained ankles," she said. "All over your body, all the time."

Young's organization announced Tuesday the establishment of the first Rheumatoid Awareness Day. Awareness of the disease is currently lacking, said Young – as are research dollars and, so far, a cure.

"People's expectations are that it's similar to the arthritis that we all know," she said. "The expectation is very different from the reality."

R.A. currently isn't preventable and usually requires lifelong treatment – the earlier, the better. The cause of the disease isn't known, though, which hampers detection efforts. Medication, biologic agents, physical therapy, diets and surgery are several avenues by which doctors and patients try to manage the disease, with varied success rates and consistency. Remission is rare.

According to the Foundation, the disease affects about 1 percent of the world's population, which includes up to 2 million Americans. Women are more likely than men to develop the condition.

"Most people are not diagnosed early, and treatments are more effective if people are diagnosed early," said Young. "It's very common for people to say that they've had symptoms for many years.

"Arthritis is only one symptom of the disease," she added. "You suddenly have a systemic illness."

Rheumatoid Awareness Day is slated to take place on Feb. 2.

Photo by Rob van Hilten via Flickr Creative Commons.

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