Rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term condition that causes joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. According to the NHS, rheumatoid arthritis affects around 400,000 people in the UK and most commonly develops between the ages of 40 and 50.
Living with rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult as it can cause pain and affect mobility, mental wellbeing, and overall quality of life. But taking steps to prevent or manage symptoms as early as possible can make a huge difference.
With that said, we’ve pulled together some key information on what rheumatoid arthritis is – including symptoms, causes, prevention, tips for coping, and how it differs from other forms of arthritis. We hope you find it useful.
What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition that can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints.
Joint damage caused by RA usually occurs on both sides of the body. For example, if a joint in one of your arms or legs is affected by RA, it’s likely that the same joint in your opposite arm or leg will be too.
This is one of the ways doctors distinguish between RA and other forms of arthritis – such as osteoarthritis. These two conditions also differ in that osteoarthritis is caused by the wearing away of the cartilage that caps bones in your joints, while RA is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks joints.
There’s currently no cure for RA, but early diagnosis and treatment can help people manage symptoms and prevent permanent joint damage.
What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition characterised by symptoms of pain and inflammation in the joints.
With RA, it’s typical for symptoms to worsen during periods known as ‘flare-ups’. Spells where symptoms improve or disappear completely are commonly called ‘periods of remission’.
The wrist, hand, and knee joints are most commonly affected by RA. However, the condition can also affect organs and tissues throughout the body, including the heart, eyes, and lungs.
Some of the most common symptoms of RA include…
- Aching or pain in more than one joint
- Swelling and tenderness in more than one joint
- Stiffness in more than one joint
- Experiencing the same joint symptoms on both sides of the body
- Deformities in the joint and loss of function
- Loss of appetite
- General weakness
RA symptoms can vary from mild to severe. However, it’s always important to address them – even if they come and go. This is because catching symptoms early means a better chance of managing and treating RA successfully.
What are some potential causes of rheumatoid arthritis?
As previously mentioned, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks healthy body tissues.
When someone has RA, their immune system attacks the cells that line joints, causing them to break down, divide, and become inflamed. During this process, chemicals are also released to nearby bones, tendons, cartilage, and ligaments – which can lead to further damage.
If RA isn’t treated, joints can eventually lose alignment, shape, and function. Eventually, they may even be destroyed.
While the specific causes or triggers of RA are unknown, there are several genetic and environmental factors that can increase a person’s risk of developing RA.
We’ll cover some of these below…
- Genetics – having a close family member with RA may increase a person’s risk of developing the condition.
- Age – RA can develop at any age, but the risk increases as we get older. According to the NHS, the development of RA is most common in adults aged 40 to 50.
- Being female – According to the NHS, women are three times more likely to develop RA than men.
- Being overweight – studies show that obesity increases the risk of RA and can exacerbate symptoms.
- Smoking – research has drawn a link between smoking and an increased risk of RA. This is largely because smoking can cause oxidative stress and interrupt the body’s inflammatory response.
Other factors that may increase the risk of RA include stress, previous infection, diet, and gut health. You can read more about the potential causes and risk factors of RA on the NHS website.
How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?
If you suspect you may have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), it’s important to see your GP as soon as possible.
To begin with, your GP will likely ask you about your symptoms and medical history before performing a physical exam to assess the health of your joints.
This may include…
- Looking for swelling or redness in the joints
- Examining joint function and range of motion
- Touching the affected joints to check for tenderness and warmth
- Testing your muscle strength and reflexes
If your GP suspects you may have RA, they’ll likely refer you to a specialist for further tests and treatment.
How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?
As we’ve previously mentioned, there’s currently no cure for rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
However, the more positive news is that receiving an early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can allow people to live normal lives for months (or even years) between flare-ups.
Some of the main treatment options for RA include…
- Taking medication long-term to relieve symptoms and slow down the condition’s progress.
- Supportive treatments like physiotherapy and occupational therapy, which can help people stay mobile and explore solutions to any problems with daily tasks and activities.
- Surgery, which is sometimes used to correct joint problems that develop.
You can read more about how rheumatoid arthritis is treated on the NHS website.
6 tips for living with rheumatoid arthritis
Lifestyle habits can play a significant role in managing rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and many people find that simple swaps can make a massive difference to their quality of life.
We’ll cover ideas to consider below…
1. Eat a joint-friendly diet
Making healthy food choices has been shown to reduce levels of inflammation and help manage symptoms.
Sources of omega-3 fatty acids – like salmon, tuna, nuts, and seeds – are particularly beneficial for joint health. The same is true of wholegrains, olive oil, fruits and vegetables, and beans and legumes.
For example, studies have linked sufficient intake of omega-3s with reduced joint stiffness, pain, and less need for medication.
If you’re unsure how to make joint-friendly foods a staple in your diet, experts recommend looking to the Mediterranean diet, which is high in whole grains, healthy fats, and fruits and vegetables, for inspiration. Check out our guide to the Mediterranean diet for more information.
Alternatively, you might like to read our articles; 7 diet tips for people living with arthritis and 10 best foods for healthy joints and which to avoid.
2. Stay active and prioritise low-impact exercise
You might not feel like moving around when you have joint pain or stiffness, but staying active is often one of the most important things you can do for joint health – and can help to relieve symptoms too.
Low-impact and strengthening exercises – such as walking, swimming, Pilates, yoga, and Tai Chi – are usually great options for people with RA. These activities are gentler on joints and can also be effective at building muscle strength – offering further joint relief.
For example, research has found that yoga poses can help to reduce joint tenderness and swelling for some people with RA. Other studies suggest that Tai Chi helps to reduce long-term pain, and Pilates takes pressure off joints by strengthening the core muscles.
Why not head over to the fitness and exercise section of our website for more tips and ideas on staying active?
3. Prioritise good quality sleep
Sleep is essential for health because it allows the body to rest and recover.
Other studies have found that people with RA who experience sleep problems have a lower pain threshold than those who sleep well – even when their inflammation is under control. According to experts, these findings suggest that a lack of sleep may interfere with how the central nervous system processes pain.
However, getting enough good quality sleep is often easier said than done for people with RA. This is because pain and discomfort can make falling and staying asleep difficult.
As a result, it’s estimated that up to 80% of people with RA report fatigue as one of their symptoms.
If this is something you struggle with, you might like to read our article; 9 tips for sleeping better with arthritis.
4. Take care of your oral health
The evidence suggests that gum disease may cause RA to progress faster – largely because it can lead to greater bone and cartilage damage.
For example, this study found that the bacteria that causes gum disease also increases the severity of RA, leads to an earlier onset of symptoms, and causes RA to progress more quickly.
For this reason, it’s important to schedule regular dental checks, brush your teeth and floss daily, and limit your intake of highly processed, sugary foods and drinks. For further tips and advice, check out our articles; 9 ways to improve oral hygiene and 8 reasons why oral hygiene is key for overall health.
If you have trouble taking care of your teeth due to stiff, painful hands, we encourage you to speak to your dentist or occupational therapist about things that can help to make dental care easier.
5. Take steps to manage your stress levels
RA can have a significant impact on mental health and wellbeing – including stress levels.
However, research has identified a clear link between stress and RA, so it’s important to do what you can to manage your worries.
For example, studies show that high stress levels can affect the immune system’s inflammatory response and lead to further joint damage. Similarly, long-term stress can increase muscle tension and intensify RA pain.
6. Maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight can heighten RA symptoms because it places extra pressure on joints. However, according to research, almost two-thirds of people with RA are overweight or obese.
There’s also a link between obesity and increased inflammation, which can lead to further pain. Studies show that excess fat tissue releases high amounts of cytokines (pro-inflammatory substances) throughout the body.
Plus, there’s evidence that being overweight may interfere with arthritis medication.
For example, this study found that certain arthritis medications don’t work for obese people living with RA. Some experts suggest that fat cells may attach to certain drugs, making them nonfunctional.
For tips on how to maintain a healthy weight, you might be interested in our articles; 15 quick and easy diet swaps for a healthier lifestyle and 9 tips to prevent overeating and encourage portion control.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that can be scary and difficult to live with.
Do you have any experience with managing rheumatoid arthritis? Have you found this article useful? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.