What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis, or chronic polyarthritis, is not just a joint disorder, it is a systemic disease.
Its basis is a disorder of the immune system - this leads to inflammation that can eventually result in joint damage and deformity. However, in the early stages, we can prevent the joints being destroyed completely.
Our everyday movements are a marvel of nature. Thanks to the complex interaction of joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles, we are able to walk, dance and jump. If one of the over 140 joints is inflamed or irritated, the ingenious locomotor system becomes unbalanced. Such irritative conditions and inflammatory states of one or more joints are grouped together under the collective term "arthritis". Joint inflammation can start suddenly or take a chronic course. The most common chronic form of joint inflammation is rheumatoid arthritis.
Signs and symptoms
A classic feature of rheumatoid arthritis is the symmetrical onset of joint inflammation. Symmetrical means, for example, that the joints of the fingers or toes on both sides of the body are affected at the same time. Inflammation of the joints becomes apparent through pain, swelling or warmth. Joint mobility is also restricted. Such inflammation usually begins in the joints of the fingers or in the joints of the hands and feet. It then spreads to other joints such as the knee and shoulder.
In many cases, fluid collects in the joint and causes articular effusion. Pain typically develops at rest. Whenever you move the joint, the pain eases.
In the early stages of the disease, this may be accompanied by secondary symptoms such as:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Raised temperature
Risk factors and causes
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body considers its own tissues to be foreign and fights them. The immune system reacts with an inflammation.
There are a number of possible precipitating factors for this "malfunction":
- Smoking: smoking seems to play an important role.
- Viruses & bacteria: pathogens (viruses and bacteria) may also be important.
- Congenital: genetic influences can also be the cause.
It is likely that a number of factors have to come together before rheumatoid arthritis can be triggered.
There is no guarantee – but a healthy lifestyle with regular sport is a good prophylaxis against rheumatoid arthritis, above all in combination with a healthy diet. Make sure you eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and vitamin C.
And: don't smoke.
How can joint inflammation be treated?
Medical supports have proved most valuable for rheumatoid arthritis. They stabilise and relieve the joint, reduce swelling and gently relieve pain.
There are other ways of stopping or reducing joint destruction apart from wearing supports. In the ideal case, an individual treatment plan is drawn up in collaboration between specialists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and psychologists. Specialists in this field are, for example, rheumatologists, orthopaedic specialists and surgeons. Drugs are sometimes also prescribed for pain relief.
Other forms of treatment – also in combination with supports – are physiotherapy and exercises to do every day (ergotherapy). Cold packs or special cold therapy can relieve pain. In some cases, an operation can help, e.g. the removal of the inner lining of the joint or replacement of the affected joint by an artificial one.
Talk to your doctor about which therapy is right for you.