Those who have experienced a painful swelling in their joints due to rheumatoid arthritis will tell you that it is nothing less than hair-raising. The pain, the swelling and the continuous discomfort due to the disease is a lifelong agony since there is no cure for it. Still, precautionary measures and treatment can lessen the risk of joint damage and restrict the impact of the condition.
Rheumatologists describe rheumatoid arthritis as an autoimmune and chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the joints. “It commonly hits the hands, knees and ankles,” Dr Chethana D, consultant, rheumatology, Aster CMI Hospital, Bengaluru, told Happiest Health. “It occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks a person’s own body tissues. Rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of the joints which can cause painful swelling and can lead to bone erosion and joint deformity.”
According to Dr Shweta Singhai, consultant, rheumatology, Sakra World Hospital, Bengaluru, rheumatoid arthritis can impact the eyes, skin, lungs, heart and nervous system too.
Who is prone to rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis (like most diseases and conditions) does not discriminate on the basis of a person’s age or gender.
“It can affect any age group — from children to elders,” said Dr Singhai. “Both men and women are vulnerable to it. However, rheumatoid arthritis affects women more than men in a ratio of 9:1. The age which is mostly affected is 20 to 40 years. It can also be seen in new mothers just a few weeks after childbirth. Many women in post-menopausal period also develop rheumatoid arthritis.”
Family history, smoking and being overweight can increase the risk of getting the disease.
“People born with specific genes such as HLA (human leukocyte antigen) class II genotypes and those with a family history of rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to develop it,” said Dr Chethana. “Smokers and overweight people are at the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.”
Symptoms and causes
Doctors told Happiest Health that the symptoms differ from person to person. In the initial phase, the disease affects the smaller joints (fingers and toes). Later, the symptoms often spread to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders. These include:
- Pain, swelling, stiffness and tenderness in more than one joint
- Joint stiffness that is usually worse in the mornings and after inactivity
- Pain and stiffness in the same joints on both sides of your body
- Fatigue, weakness, fever, loss of appetite, etc.
Best practices and diet
Having a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight are the common suggestions given by rheumatologists to keep the disease at bay.
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) advises people living with rheumatoid arthritis to maintain a healthy weight and change the type of fat in their diet to help them get some relief from the pain and swelling. The BDA, which represents the whole of the dietetic workforce in the UK, advises people to eat more oily fish, fish oils, follow a Mediterranean diet and eat iron-rich and calcium-rich foods.
“There’s no way to prevent rheumatoid arthritis,” Dr Chethana said. “But there are certain things a person can do to minimize the risk. Healthy diet, exercise, smoking cessation and good mental health are all keys to control it.”
She said self-care plays an important role in managing rheumatoid arthritis and in easing the pain and fatigue associated with it. “It is important to consume a balanced and nutritious diet consisting of the recommended amounts of all the food items to maintain a healthy weight,” she said.
“We should try to be physically active. Instead of using a lift, we should take the stairs and walk around our homes to keep ourselves physically active. One can also try hot and cold treatments. Both heat pads and warm baths work well for soothing stiff joints and tired muscles. However, cold pads and cold baths are best for acute pain and swollen joints. Body and joint massages help to reduce pain, relax sore muscles and ease stress and anxiety. We should take proper rest and try to de-stress ourselves by doing meditation, deep breathing, yoga, etc.”
People should also maintain good oral hygiene. “Gum and periodontal disease can make a person more prone to rheumatoid arthritis,” said Dr Singhai. She said there is “no particular anti-rheumatoid arthritis diet”.
“However, an anti-inflammatory diet is advisable,” she said. “This includes eating more vegetarian or vegan diets, including more polyunsaturated fatty acid, oleic acid and synbiotics in diet plans.
“Addition of spices like turmeric and ginger, seasonal fruits and probiotic yogurt are good sources of natural antioxidants and deliver anti-inflammatory effects. Herbs like ashwagandha and green tea and basil (tulsi) tea are beneficial too. The patient should avoid any processed food, high salt, oils, butter, sugar and animal products. Dietary supplements like vitamin D, cod liver oil and multivitamins can also help in managing rheumatoid arthritis.”
This is one disease where doctors recommend medication after diagnosis to restrict any kind of permanent damages left by rheumatoid arthritis.
Other health issues
Described by the medical fraternity as a “complex disease”, rheumatoid arthritis often brings other health issues along with it.
According to an article published on the website ScienceDirect, some diseases like cardiovascular disease, infections or lymphoma co-occur more frequently in a person living with rheumatoid arthritis.