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Rheumatoid arthritis: Symptoms and treatments

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a systemic autoimmune disease where a person’s immune system attacks the lining of the joints causing inflammation and pain. If untreated, it can lead to chronic damage and disability. It is not yet known what causes RA, but scientists think that multiple factors work together to put people at risk, including:

  • gender
  • age
  • genetics (family history of RA or other autoimmune disease)
  • environmental exposures
  • stress
  • poor dentition (dental maintenance and hygiene)
  • smoking
  • obesity

The main symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis

A person with new RA usually has one or more of these symptoms:

  • Pain, swelling, redness and warmth in the small joints of the hands and feet; often the same on both sides
  • Morning stiffness, gradually improving over hours each day
  • Reduced function and loss of motion in affected joints
  • Severe fatigue

Rheumatoid arthritis most commonly involves the joints of the hands, feet, wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles and neck. It can involve one or more of these joints at the same time and can progress to include more joints over time. The lower back is normally not involved.

Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis

Once a rheumatologist has diagnosed RA, there are effective treatments available to help a person manage the symptoms and minimize joint damage. While there is no known cure for RA, a rheumatologist and other arthritis health care providers can help build an all-encompassing treatment plan that usually includes learning about the disease, medications, physiotherapy/physical therapy and occupational therapy, lifestyle changes, self-care strategies and Indigenous healing practices.

Because people with active, moderate to severe RA are at high risk for joint damage caused by the disease, it is very important for them to integrate their treatment regimen into their life. Health promoting habits and wellness practices can preserve physical function and help to achieve the highest quality of life possible. Further, arthritis treatment for ethnically diverse groups requires approaches that are culturally sensitive and relevant and incorporate traditional healing practices or alternative therapies. Research shows that culturally appropriate models may be more effective in resolving care gaps and optimizing health outcomes for Indigenous Peoples living with arthritis and other comorbidities.

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