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Four Key Characteristics of Rheumatoid Arthritis

from Johns Hopkins Health Alerts

In this excerpt from our Special Report on Treating and Managing Rheumatoid Arthritis, rheumatologist Dr. Joan Bathon explains the four distinguishing characteristics of rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is autoimmune, inflammatory, chronic and systemic (meaning that it affects the whole body).

Autoimmune. This term describes an immune-system attack that the body launches upon itself. For some unknown reason, the immune system becomes "confused" and begins to interpret molecular signals from normal body tissues as if they are coming from harmful infectious bacteria or viruses. In rheumatoid arthritis, the chief target of this attack is the synovial membrane, the lining of the joints that connect parts of the skeleton.

Inflammatory. When the white blood cells of the immune system attack the synovial membrane, they begin to release the same poisonous substances that kill bacteria and viruses during an infection. The result is a series of chemical changes that produce the same local symptoms that occur with an infection: the combination of heat, swelling, pain and redness known as inflammation.

Chronic. Like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease; the autoimmune attacks can continue indefinitely. But rheumatoid arthritis is more crippling than osteoarthritis. As time goes on, continued inflammation causes the synovial membrane to thicken. An area of inflammatory cells (a pannus) often starts to form at the point where the synovial membrane joins the cartilage.

Continued release of enzymes and growth factors by the white blood cells, along with growth of the pannus, can erode cartilage, tendons, ligaments and even bones within the joint capsule. As rheumatoid arthritis progresses, the ever-growing pannus can further limit joint motion. Inflammation of tissues surrounding the joint may eventually cause permanent joint damage and deformities.

Systemic. The effects of rheumatoid arthritis are not limited to the joints; they can have consequences throughout the entire body. As a result, people who have rheumatoid arthritis are frequently fatigued, often lose their appetite and may run a low fever and feel generally unwell, as if they have the flu. Without proper treatment, rheumatoid arthritis can lead to significant disability and premature death.

This information is not intended to substitute for the advice of a physician. Click here for additional information.

Copyright © 2011 Remedy Health Media, LLC. 500 Fifth Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, NY 10110. All rights reserved.


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5 Myths about Exercise and Older Adults

5 Myths about Exercise and Older Adults Myth 1: There no point to exercising. I’m going to get old anyway. Fact:Exercise and strength training helps you look and feel younger and stay active longer. Regular physical activity lowers your risk for a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer and dementia, heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, high […]




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