Arthritis is not one disease, but an umbrella term for more than 100 types of arthritic conditions. What’s more, arthritis isn’t just something that occurs during old age after years of wearing down the bones. In fact, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) often appears in your 30s.
RA is an autoimmune disease, meaning it’s caused by a hyper-reactive immune system. Instead of just attacking harmful viruses and bacteria, an immune system with RA attacks your synovium—the protective space between joints.
If you don’t have a condition like RA, you probably never think about your synovium. After all, you can’t exactly see it. The synovium is like a cushion between joints, and it creates a fluid that lubricates the joints so they don’t grind together. This helps you move smoothly and painlessly.
But if your immune system turned against your synovium, the synovial fluid could thicken and swell, causing pain and stiffness in the joints. If untreated, the constant inflammation can start to erode the bone itself, causing deformities in the joint. It can also weaken the muscles, ligaments, and tendons surrounding the joint.
The joints most commonly affected by RA include:
It’s not just joint pain. Like other autoimmune diseases, RA can bring about other symptoms, like chronic fatigue and skin rashes. Learn more about symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis here.
RA stiffness tends to be the worst in the mornings or after periods of inactivity. That’s because movement improves blood circulation to bring oxygen and nutrients to the joints, which also helps circulation of the synovial fluid itself. For this reason, physical activity is a key aspect of treatment for RA.
RA treatment includes a combination of lifestyle changes (like exercise) and medication. Together, these treatments attempt to rein in the inflammation. For example, the mainstay of medical treatment for RA includes DMARDs, or disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs. These block inflammation, thus preventing pain as well as long-term damage to the joints.
In addition to exercise, lifestyle changes for RA may include following a healthy sleep regimen and eating an anti-inflammatory diet. This includes avoiding foods that worsen inflammation and incorporating lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins.
If stiff and swollen joints are holding you back, don’t wait: Visit your doctor for a diagnosis, so you can begin a joint-saving regimen if necessary.