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Don't put Rheumatoid Arthritis down to general aches and pains

This week a doctor from the Division of rheumatology at Massachusetts General Hospital in America has published details of a possible benefit of prescribing sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis with statins.

These are very early days and more investigations will be done on this, but it does highlight the increasing research that is taking place about rheumatoid arthritis.

In the past, aches and pains were accepted as a normal part of growing older. Now medical knowledge has improved dramatically and most health problems can at least be diagnosed, if not fully treated.

Rheumatoid arthritis was one condition which was often used to be put down to general “aches and pains”, especially because it can come and go, and flare up at different times.

But rheumatoid arthritis is certainly not simply an old age problem. While it can affect adults at any age, it commonly starts between the ages of 40 and 50.

There are nearly half a million sufferers in the UK, and symptoms can vary considerably. Generally rheumatoid arthritis will affect the joints, and often the small joints in the hands and feet are the first to be affected although the condition can affect any joint in the body. Interestingly, it often affects the same joints on opposite sides of the body at the same time.

The first normal symptom associated with rheumatoid arthritis is pain and stiffness, often a throbbing and aching pain or a stiffness that can perhaps stop you from fully closing your fingers. The stiffness can be worse in the morning or after a period of inactivity. Joints can sometimes swell, caused by the lining of the affected joints becoming inflamed, and joints can also become hot and tender to touch. The condition can also cause some more general problems such as tiredness, temperature, sweating and weight loss.

Rheumatoid arthritis is not caused by age and the joints wearing out. It is actually an autoimmune condition which is caused by the body’s immune system attacking itself. Your body automatically makes antibodies to fight bacteria and viruses to keep you healthy. With rheumatoid arthritis, instead your immune system sends antibodies to attack the tissues surrounding joints. This causes the thin layers of cells which cover the joints to become inflamed and painful.

This inflammation is not the end of the problem. Because of the inflammation around the joints, the body releases special chemicals to thicken the thin layer of cells surrounding the joints. This unfortunately can cause damage to bones, cartilage, tendons and ligaments. Long term, if the condition is left untreated, these chemicals can cause the joint to lose shape and can even destroy the joint completely.

While a lot of research is underway, as yet it is not fully understood what causes the change in the body’s autoimmune system which leads to rheumatoid arthritis, although there is some evidence that genes, the hormone oestrogen and smoking could all be involved in a small way. Certainly the problem is more common among women than men, which could be related to oestrogen levels.

There is at the moment no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but nevertheless professional medical help should be sought as soon as the problem manifests itself. For a start, the symptoms could be related to another problem and secondly early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can help sufferers to deal with the condition; enjoy periods of months or even years between flare ups and to lead fairly normal lives.

Treatment includes medication to relieve symptoms and stop the condition getting worse, plus lifestyle changes and sometimes surgery which can reduce the risk of joint damage and limit the impact of the condition.

Medication comes mainly in two types – disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biological treatments. DMARD treatments work by blocking the effect of the chemicals released when the immune system attacks the joints. Biological treatments work by stopping particular chemicals in the blood from activating your immune system to attack the joints.

There is a lot of information about rheumatoid arthritis and treatment n the web and in the UK there is a National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society which gives a lot of information.


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