Your body on arthritis: Why the condition can be so painful and debilitating

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What happens to your body when you have rheumatoid arthritis. (Photo: Getty Images)
What happens to your body when you have rheumatoid arthritis. (Photo: Getty Images)

Most people have at least heard of arthritis and understand that it has something to do with your joints. But there are several forms of arthritis, and the two most common types — osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis — are pretty different.

Osteoarthritis is associated with wear and tear that comes with aging, while rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder that can affect people of any age. “Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic medical condition where the body’s immune system attacks its own joints,” Lynn M. Ludmer, MD, chief of the division of rheumatology at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

With RA, “the immune system goes haywire and acts in a way that’s not normal,” Orrin Troum, MD, a rheumatologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “That directly affects the lining of the joint, called the synovium, and makes the synovium inflamed.”

That makes the synovium thicker, which can destroy the cartilage and bone, he explains. At the same time, the tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together get weaker and stretch, eventually causing the joint to become misaligned. Overall, that can lead to symptoms like tender, swollen joints, joint stiffness and even fatigue, fever and weight loss, he says.

If a person’s RA is left untreated, the joint’s cartilage and underlying bone can be damaged over time, and that can lead to joint deformity, Ludmer says. “For some patients, damage can occur quickly over months to years and can have a major impact in an individual’s ability to function,” she says. “Even simple tasks, like opening bottles or brushing teeth, can become problematic.”

Rheumatoid arthritis isn’t just limited to the joints, though: It can also damage a person’s skin, eyes, lungs, heart and blood vessels, Troum notes.

There’s still a lot experts don’t know about RA. “The bottom line is we don’t know what causes it, but there are some predisposing factors,” Troum says. That includes being female (women are three times more likely than men to develop rheumatoid arthritis), having a family history of the disease, smoking cigarettes, being obese and having poor dental health.

While RA can be debilitating, there are treatments available to help patients. “Although there is no cure there are many medications, which are proven to slow damage and improve one’s quality of life,” Ludmer says. Those include corticosteroid medications like prednisone to help reduce inflammation and slow joint damage; disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) such as methotrexate and leflunomide, which can slow RA’s progression; and biologic agents like abatacept and golimumab, which help target parts of the immune system that trigger inflammation that causes joint and tissue damage, Troum says.

With the right treatment, someone with rheumatoid arthritis can lead a comfortable life. “The goal of treatment is for our patients to continue to lead healthy and productive lives,” Ludmer says.

However, that doesn’t mean the process will be seamless. “Patients can have ebbs and flows, as well as flare-ups, even when they get controlled,” Troum says. “But there has been tremendous progress made with forms of therapy that help control — and at times completely control — the devastating effects that rheumatoid arthritis can impose on a patient.”

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