Five signs of rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis is a condition which affects around 400,000 people in the UK.

Not to be confused with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is not due to wear and tear but is an autoimmune disease. This means that, instead of the autoimmune system protecting the body, it attacks the joints causing rheumatoid arthritis. As a consequence, although most people with the disease are aged between 40 and 60, it can affect people as young as 14.

Roughly two to three times as many women have rheumatoid arthritis compared to incidences in men.

As well as affecting the joints, rheumatoid arthritis can damage a person’s whole system, including lungs, heart and eyes.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis and left untreated it can lead to irreversible damage and disability. Treatments have improved greatly over the last 20 years and the condition can be successfully managed using drugs. Where damage is severe a patient may be assessed for their suitability for joint replacement surgery.

What are the five signs to look out for?

There are five symptoms that may indicate you have rheumatoid arthritis, and if you are experiencing any combination of these you should see your GP immediately – the sooner rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed, the more effective its treatment will be.

The symptoms are:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Fatigue
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • A sense of depression or sadness

What causes it?

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown, but research has shown that genetics and environmental factors play a role. It can occur without a family history, but even that does not mean that you will suffer from rheumatoid arthritis – there are incidences of identical twins where one has the condition, and the other does not.

A virus, infection, trauma or a stressful experience such as bereavement may bring it on, and smoking increases the risk.

Why is it so hard to diagnose?

There is no one specific test for rheumatoid arthritis, and its symptoms are very similar to any number of issues – from overdoing it at the gym to flu. Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms can come and go – you may think you are over it, and back it comes. Your GP may need to eliminate a number of other potential causes of your symptoms and this can take time.

What is the treatment?

Although there is no cure, there is an arsenal of drugs which can potentially help to alleviate the symptoms and which mean that those with rheumatoid arthritis can lead comparatively normal and active lives. Those with the condition can help themselves too, by avoiding being overweight, reducing cholesterol, keeping up to date with vaccinations, taking physiotherapist-recommended exercise and pacing themselves.

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