Rheumatoid Arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases are where the body's own immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissue. The immune system comprises an organisation of antibodies and cells which would normally target invaders of the body, usually infections. People with autoimmune diseases have antibodies in their blood which attack their own tissues, recognising them as foreign. In rheumatoid arthritis this involves the joints and occasionally other parts of the body.
Rheumatoid Arthritis affects around 0.5% to 1% of most populations. There are approximately 350,000 sufferers in the UK, usually starting in the 30-50 age group, but it can affect people of all ages. It is three times more common in women than men.
The body's defence system attacks its own joints, causing the membrane lining of the joints and tendon sheaths to become inflamed. This leads to thinning of the cartilage that covers the end of the bones, and then erosion to the exposed bone. At times, for no apparent reason, inflammation can suddenly become worse. These are usually known as 'flare-ups'. The joint becomes warm and red due to increased blood flow and the joint membrane lining producing extra fluid, resulting in a stiff, painful, swollen joint.
Symptoms: Tend to develop gradually. It can affect any joint in the body, but is often first noticeable in the hands and feet. Symptoms include swollen, stiff, painful joints; fatigue; flu-like symptoms; and a feeling of being generally unwell.
R/A affects everyone differently and the symptoms largely depend on the amount of tissue inflammation present at that time. The condition usually goes into periods of remission which can last from weeks or months up to years. It is therefore not possible to predict when the disease may become active again in a flare-up.
In general 75% of sufferers will continue to have flare-ups, 20% will only have mild symptoms, and 5% will develop severe R/A with more serious disability.
The cause is unknown. There is no single gene responsible for rheumatoid arthritis, but it is thought that there may be a genetic link. Indeed there is a much higher incidence found in Chippewa and Pima Indians (around 6%), and much lower incidence in Japan and China, suggesting genetics do play some part in predisposing people to the disease. However it must be stressed that having a family link to someone with R/A does not mean you are at much greater risk of developing the disease.
Symptoms often improve during pregnancy suggesting that hormones may play a part in triggering the condition.
Some infectious agents, viruses, bacteria and fungi have been suspected, but none have been proven to be the cause. Some scientists have reported an increased risk in smokers developing R/A.
Treatment: Self help, keeping the joints moving, finding the fine balance between helping and aggravating your joints. If the joints are hot and inflamed an ice pack may sooth the pain.
There is an increasing amount of drug therapy available with greatly improving results.
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. However your Osteopath may be able to help with some of the pain and stiffness of your joints. Using very gentle techniques, osteopaths try to improve the quality of a joints movement, ease muscle tension, and produce symptomatic relief. This may give temporary or longer lasting benefits depending on the extent of the condition. Your osteopath can help with advice, possible light exercise routines and answer your questions on this unpredictable condition.Laser treatment is a non contact treatment which may be of benefit.