Managing Rheumatoid Arthritis: Symptoms, Stages, Treatments
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that most commonly affects the joints of the hands, feet, wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect the major organs of your body along with your skin, eyes, blood vessels, and nervous system. As such, Rheumatoid Arthritis is often referred to as a systemic disease.
Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Early symptoms of RA seem to primarily target the joints of the fingers and toes. Joint stiffness, especially in the morning becomes noticeable. Other symptoms may include pain when moving around, skin that is warm to the touch, tiredness, muscle pain, and low-grade fever. Symptoms could also include poor appetite, dry mouth or eyes, and hard lumps under the skin. As the disease worsens, symptoms often spread throughout the body.
The Four Stages of Rheumatoid Arthritis
This autoimmune disease affects the body differently from person to person. Many symptoms may be so mild that they are ignored, others may not have any visible symptoms at all, while others may have a severe initial reaction. While you may not experience every phase, it’s important to be aware of the different stages of RA to help in monitoring your RA symptoms.
• Stage 1 - Many people feel joint pain, stiffness, or swelling and inflammation of the joint lining occurs.
• Stage 2 - Inflammation of the lining affects the cartilage of the joints. Pain can occur along with loss of mobility and range of motion in the joints.
• Stage 3 - Damage begins to extend to the bones and cause them to rub together. Pain and swelling increase. More loss of mobility and muscle weakness occurs. The bone deformity may become noticeable.
• Stage 4 - End-Stage RA is the final stage in which the joints no longer function. Pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of mobility are the norm. Muscle weakness is evident, and the bones may become fused.
How your condition progresses can depend on family history, early diagnosis, age at diagnosis and what stage you are at when diagnosed.
Rheumatologists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis and autoimmune diseases. They use techniques such as X-rays, MRI, and other imaging tools to determine an accurate diagnosis and to aid in coming up with an appropriate treatment plan. There are several definitive markers that doctors look for to determine if you have RA. A rheumatologist will help establish a personalized treatment plan that is best for you.
Your treatment plan will depend on the stage of RA, the severity of your symptoms and degree of inflammation, and how long you’ve been living with RA. As with any incurable disease, the goal is to reach remission. This is a time when the disease is relatively quiet – pain and swelling diminish, movement is easier, and the disease does not progress.
Treatment for RA
There are different medications available to keep RA symptoms in check. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) help slow down the disease progression by slowing joint tissue damage. Steroids and non-steroid anti-inflammatory medications help with pain and swelling. Biologic drugs work on the immune system to change the way the body reacts to inflammation.
The primary goal of any RA treatment is to control inflammation and reduce it as much as possible. Relieving symptoms brings pain relief to the patient and thus improves your quality of life. Treatment can control and slow the progression of the disease by preventing further joint damage.
Lifestyle Changes to Manage RA
While pain and swelling may limit mobility, regular movement and exercise can improve joint health and delay some of the secondary conditions associated with RA. If possible, quit smoking as the symptoms can be aggravated by smoking. Do your best to maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is hard on the joints and muscles, further aggravating RA. Also, overweight people are at even higher risk for developing heart-related illnesses in addition to RA.
Eating a well-balanced diet provides nutrients to the joints and helps maintain a healthy weight. While exercise is important, so is rest. When symptoms flare up, rest to help reduce tiredness and control pain and swelling. When swelling and pain is manageable, move as much as you can to help maintain muscle tone and range of motion.
There will be times when swelling flares up suddenly. Ice packs are useful for pain relief and to reduce swelling. If your joints are stiff or you have sore muscles, then heat works best. A warm bath with Epsom salt can be soothing as well as using a heating pad. If a heating pad is not available, you can warm a sock filled with raw rice in the microwave.
There are many over the counter topical creams that are helpful for swollen, painful joints. Many use menthol to dull the pain, and the resulting warmth can be soothing.
Meditation, deep breathing, and thinking happy thoughts are holistic methods that can be used to take your mind off your symptoms. Massage can help reduce pain, relax sore muscles and ease stress or anxiety. Acupuncture and acupressure are a couple of other holistic measures to help manage your RA.
Vitamin supplements and over the counter drugs help manage the pain of RA. Always check with your doctor before taking anything that could counteract with any prescribed medication.
Don’t Forget a Strong Support System
Your mental state and emotional well-being contribute greatly to how well your RA is managed. Friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and even church members can help provide emotional support. Combatting negativity is important to your daily battle with RA. Sometimes it takes a bit of a push to have the courage to continue doing things you enjoy. Managing this progressive disease may be daunting, but you can maintain a good quality of life.