“When you have Rheumatoid Arthritis, your immune system-which normally fights healthy invaders-starts attacking your joints, causing inflammation, stiffness, and the loss of cartilage and bone. Although the medical term is rheumatoid arthritis, it’s more appropriate to call it rheumatoid disease (or, as I like to call it, rheumatoid autoimmune disease), as it can affect almost every organ.
Many cells play a role-and not everyone will experience problems with each type of cell. For some, T cells (white blood cells that normally help the body fight infections) or B cells (which normally produce antibodies) will go haywire and cause problems. Sometimes cytokines (proteins that normally regulate the immune system) malfunction. Various treatments take aim at problem cells.
During an RA flare, the immune system cells listed above target your synovium- the delicate lining that surrounds and cushions your joints and produces fluid that lubricates the area. As a result, your synovium becomes swollen and inflamed, putting pressure on your nerves, which then transmit pain signals to your brain. What’s more, the swollden synovium also protrudes into the joint, where it releases chemicals that eat away at the bone.”
I took this definition from Arthritis Healthmonitor magazine, Vol. 1, No. 2. I would add a couple important things to the definition:
Rheumatoid Arthritis differs from the more common Osteoarthritis in an important way. While Osteoarthritis is a deterioration of cartilage and overgrowth of bone often due to “wear and tear,” RA is an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system begins to attack its healthy tissue, usually the joints, and begins an often progressive (if not treated) pattern of inflammation and deterioration. While Osteoarthritis is more common in the elderly population, as it is caused by “wear and tear,” RA can affect anyone at any age. The form of RA most present in kids is called JRA (juvenile rheumatoid arthritis).
RA can affect the whole body, causing a sufferer to feel drained, fatigued, and even flu like symptoms. The whole of these symptoms can also lead to sleep problems and depression.
Progress is being made in the treatment options and knowledge of RA. Some researchers now believe RA to be partially linked to genetic factors, though many believe some sort of environmental “trigger” is needed to cue the autoimmune system into attack mode. More and more drugs and studies are coming out every day on different ways to treat the disease and prevent permanent damage.
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with RA, or someone you love has, don’t worry! RA is no longer a guarantee of disability. Though it is officially a “chronic” disease, there are many people out there living full, healthy lives with RA. My recommendation is to do as much research as you can, but take it all in with a grain of salt. No two cases are the same and there are many paths the disease can take (including simply never flaring up again). Stay healthy, stay hopeful and take care of yourself.