You have swollen, red, painful joints, and you're wondering what's going on; after all, you're only in your twenties. You need to see a physician – preferably a rheumatologist – but the likelihood is, you have rheumatoid arthritis.
What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis, unlike the most common form of osteoarthritis, is an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases occur in genetically predisposed individuals, and are the result of the body's own defense system mistakenly attacking healthy tissue in an autoimmune response normally seen when the body is exposed to infections, or to injuries. The problem is, there's no actual disease or infection occurring in the body, so the body is essentially attacking itself, destroying healthy tissue when it thinks the body is under siege from an outside force. There is a fairly long list of autoimmune disorders; some of the more commonly known autoimmune disorders in addition to rheumatoid arthritis are lupus, celiac disease, and myasthenia gravis. Rheumatoid arthritis is characterized by pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects joints on both sides of the body – both hands, both ankles – and this differentiates it from other forms of arthritis. The disease may also affect other systems in the body, such as skin, eyes, cardiovascular system, or the nervous system.
How do you determine if you have RA?
The onset of RA can be gradual, causing damage to the affected parts long before the symptoms of joint pain, swelling, redness, and stiffness appear. When you first start experiencing noticeable problems, see a doctor. Your primary care physician may diagnose RA, or some other form of arthritis, and refer you to a rheumatologist for long-term care. Or, you may opt to see the rheumatologist first; once a diagnosis of arthritis is conjectured, you will be seeing a rheumatologist at some point.
How will you treat your RA?
RA is an individual disease; it affects everyone differently. A treatment plan geared for you, and for the severity of your disease, will be formulated by your rheumatologist. It is in your best interests to see a holistic physician, or a naturopath in addition to your rheumatologist, as the treatments available in the allopathic pharmacopeia may not be best for you. There are natural treatments that can reduce your symptoms, and allow you a more pain-free life than you may be able to get from the drug companies.
Some natural treatments for RA include:
Mind and Body therapies
These are things like massage, meditation, tai chi, or reiki. Taking the time to reduce your stress level will improve your well-being, whether or not it helps your RA. Most autoimmune disorders are stress-related, in that they worsen when you undergo periods of stress. Learning how to cope with stress is a major step in improving your life.
Your mother always told you, you are what you eat. Though it's painful to realize that Mom was right (again!), your diet has a big impact on how you deal with arthritis in general, and RA in particular. Because RA is an autoimmune disorder, certain foods may trigger attacks more frequently than in other forms of arthritis. Certain foods can also help reduce your symptoms. Learn what helps, and what doesn't; you'll feel better in the long run.
While it hurts like the devil to be active with arthritis, and especially RA, movement is necessary. In other forms of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis, staying active improves your joints, and helps keep a positive attitude. Movement may not have as much benefit for your joints with RA, as your autoimmune response will continue to damage your joints, activity will keep you on your feet longer. And it will still improve your attitude, which is a major factor in coping with the disease.
Physical therapies will assist you in keeping your joints limber. While they won't be as limber as the joints of a healthy individual, they will be limber enough to allow you to move with a minimum of pain and stiffness.
Massage is always helpful to arthritis sufferers, RA patients included. Massage eases pain, and reduces inflammation. You'll be more comfortable when you have massage therapy than without, and your muscles and joints will be less inflamed, causing you less pain.
Weight Loss and RA
Weight loss is recommended for most arthritis sufferers, as excess weight puts stress on your joints, increasing the pain and stiffness caused by the arthritis. Osteoarthritis affects the major weight-bearing joints, so weight loss is definitely beneficial for these patients. RA is different; the joints affected by RA are not typically weight-bearing, so weight loss as a therapy is not as obvious for an RA patient.
However, being overweight affects every system in your body, and having to move the extra pounds puts stress on your entire body. Fatigue, fever, and a general malaise are part of having RA, and carrying extra weight will certainly cause a patient to have a higher fatigue level. While not having a direct effect on the weight-bearing joints, RA is still affected by any extra pounds the patient may be hauling around with them.
Losing weight will definitely help an RA patient cope with their disease. Some RA patients are affected in their ankles, so weight loss reduces the strain placed on the joints by the extra pounds, and can result in less pain and stiffness. The joints are still under attack, but the weight loss will ease the suffering, and may reduce the damage.
Arthritis, in all its forms, has no known cure. Rheumatoid arthritis, being an autoimmune disorder, has fewer treatment options than other forms of the disease. A combination of allopathic and integrative medicine provides a patient with the best possible treatment options available, and may lead to a less painful lifestyle. Of the natural treatments a patient can undergo, weight loss has many benefits, both for the RA and just in general. Weight loss leads to lower stress on the body, and for someone suffering from a stress-induced or stress-related chronic disease, that's definitely, a good thing.
Goekoop-Ruiterman YP, de Vries-Bouwstra JK, Allaart CF, van Zeben D, Kerstens PJ, Hazes JM,, et al. Comparison of treatment strategies in early rheumatoid arthritis: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2007 Mar 20;146(6):406-15.
Saag KG, Teng GG, Patkar NM, Anuntiyo J, Finney C, Curtis JR, et al. American College of Rheumatology 2008 recommendations for the use of nonbiologic and biologic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs in rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Rheum. 2008 Jun 15;59(6):762-84.