Rheumatoid Arthritis Awareness Week
This week for Rheumatoid Arthritis week we take a look at the key symptoms, treatments, and how to manage flare-ups at home.
Rheumatoid Arthritis is a chronic auto-immune disease which causes pain, swelling and stiffness of the joints. The condition commonly includes hands, wrists, knees and ankles, and usually in the same joints on both sides of the body, but it can also affect the eyes, circulatory system and/or the lungs. Rheumatoid Arthritis occurs when the immune system fails to function properly and starts to attack the linings of the joints, causing pain to the individual and making the joints swollen and stiff. It’s not clear what triggers the immune system to act like this, but research has found you are at an increased risk if you are female , have a family history of RA, or you smoke.
The symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis often develop gradually over several weeks, but some cases can progress quickly over a number of days.
Pain – Joint pain associated with Rheumatoid Arthritis is usually described as a throbbing and aching pain. The pain is often worse in the mornings, or after a period of inactivity.
Stiffness – The joint affected can feel stiff and often people will lose a range of motion. For example, if your hands are affected you might not be able to close your fist or fully bend your fingers. Again, joint stiffness is usually worse in the morning or after a period of inactivity.
Swelling, Warmth and Redness – As the lining of the joints become inflamed, this can also cause them to swell, and be hot or tender to touch. Some people also develop Rheumatoid nodules, which are hard lumps that appear under the skin around the affected area.
Additional Health Effects
As well as affecting the joints, Rheumatoid Arthritis can also affect the individual’s health in other ways. They may also experience symptoms such as:
Dryness of the eyes and mouth – which can cause pain, inflammation, redness, sensitivity to light or trouble with sight, and gum infections.
Inflammation of the heart – which causes damage to the heart muscle and surrounding areas, causing chest pain.
Inflammation of the blood vessels - known as vasculitis, is the weakening, thickening and narrowing of the blood vessel walls. This can lead to damage in the nerves, skin and other organs, and can be life threatening.
However, the NHS suggests that inflammation in other parts of the body from Rheumatoid aArthritis is less likely with early treatment.
Rheumatoid Arthritis currently affects around 400,000 people in the UK over the age of 16, although it can affect anyone of any age. If you think you might have symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis it’s important to get an early diagnosis and start intensive treatment, as it can get worse quickly.
There are three main ways to treat Rheumatoid Arthritis which include:
Drugs – there are four main drug types which may be prescribed to help treat symptoms, which are painkillers, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and steroids (also known as corticosteroids).
Physical Therapies – seeing a physiotherapist may help to strengthen your muscles, improve fitness and suggest exercises which help to make your joints more flexible. A physiotherapist might also be able to help with pain management by use of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine. A TENS machine works by sending small electrical pulses to the affected joint, numbing the nerve endings, and helping to ease pain in the area.
Surgery – Sometimes, surgery is necessary to help to restore the ability to use the joint, after joint damage. Surgery might also be recommended to reduce pain, or to remove nodules. Examples of surgery might also include joint replacements, or carpal tunnel surgery. Carpal tunnel syndrome is where there is pressure on a nerve in the wrist and can be common in people with Rheumatoid Arthritis. It causes tingling, numbness and pain in the hand and fingers and so surgery is needed to relieve the pressure.
Managing a flare-up
Sometimes symptoms will get worse, often after stress or if you’re ill or run-down, and this is known as a flare-up. It’s important to keep taking any medication and treatment you have been prescribed, but there are also other things that can help manage your symptoms at home.
Heat and cold therapy – Versus Arthritis suggest: gentle heat can help joint pain and may include items such as electric heat pads and hot water bottles. Ice can also help with joint pain and people often use ice packs held to the affected area, or wrap cold flannels around the joints.
Physical activity – you may find it hard to be physically active when a flare-up happens, however it can help with symptoms, including pain, and will help to ease the stiffness of joints.
Equipment to assist with day-to-day activities – there is a range of equipment and technology which can help with managing symptoms and daily living at home.
- Adaptive kitchen equipment such as kettle pourers, electric tin openers, silicone jar openers and push down table top scissors, all help with grip and mobility if the hands and wrists are affected.
- Dressing aids such as shoehorns and sock sliders can be helpful when getting dressed during a flare-up or if the joints are feeling stiff.
- Adaptive garden tools that have easy grip handles at various lengths are helpful if the hands and wrists are affected.
If you would like more information on Rheumatoid Arthritis or have recently been diagnosed, organisations such as Versus Arthritis and the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, offer helplines and support groups.
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