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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an incurable chronic inflammatory disease that causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and loss of function in the joints throughout the body, but most typically affects the small joints of the hands and feet. The immune system is supposed to protect the body, but with rheumatoid arthritis, it turns against the body, attacking tissues and even organs including the eyes and lungs. Rheumatoid arthritis can strike at any age although it usually begins between the ages of 40 and 60 and is more common in women than men. Early diagnosis is important because if left untreated, it can cause joint damage and even permanent joint destruction.
Rheumatoid arthritis increases the risk of developing other health problems including osteoporosis – bone loss that leads to weak and brittle bones that are highly susceptible to fracture; carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition caused by a pinched nerve in the wrist that leads to numbness, tingling and weakness in the hands and wrists; heart problems such as clogged arteries, heart attack and heart failure; and inflammation and scarring of the lung tissues, which can lead to progressive shortness of breath.
Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by the immune system attacking the synovium – the lining of the membranes surrounding the joints. The synovium thickens due to inflammation, which can destroy cartilage and bone within the joints. The disease can also occur when tendons and ligaments that hold the joints together weaken and stretch, causing the joints to lose shape and alignment.
Though experts are not sure of the cause, it is believed to be a combination of genetics and environmental triggers. Genetics may make a person more susceptible to environmental factors such as infection from viruses and bacteria that can trigger rheumatoid arthritis, but no infection or organism has been identified as the cause.