Can Rheumatoid Arthritis Be Prevented?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the joints (arthron = joint, -itis = inflammation). It affects approximately 1% of the United States population, or 2.1 million people, 75% of which are women between the ages of 30 and 60.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a unique form of arthritis due to the fact that it results from an autoimmune condition, meaning the body attacks itself. In the case of this autoimmune disease, white blood cells attack the membrane that lines our joints - the synovium. This causes the joint to become inflamed (swollen, warm, painful), greatly decreasing mobility of the joint. Over time, the synovium becomes thickened, surrounding ligaments, tendons, and bones become damaged, and the joint eventually loses function altogether.
What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?
The immune system is very powerful and, usually, very helpful. It protects us from every little bug that comes our way, preventing the many viruses and bacteria of this world from making our bodies their home. As the immune system develops, it learns which cells and proteins are foreign and which ones are not. In those with an autoimmune disease, some part of the immune system has slipped past this development unnoticed. For those with rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system recognizes the cells which make up the synovial membranes as foreign and attacks them as such.
The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis remains to be discovered. Because it occurs so often in women, a hormonal link is suspected. It has also been shown to follow hereditary lines, leading scientists to believe there must be a genetic connection as well. It's also possible that rheumatoid arthritis, due to its complexity, is in fact several diseases with similar symptoms. It has long been suspected that an infection (viral or otherwise) could be responsible for triggering the development of rheumatoid arthritis in at-risk individuals, although this has never been proven.
Is There Anything That Puts Me at Risk of Developing It?
Risk factors of rheumatoid arthritis include family history, age, gender, and smoking. Women are three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis, usually occurring between the ages of 30 and 60. Those with a family history are also much more likely to develop the disease. The only avoidable risk factor is smoking, which is known to impair immune function.
Can It Be Prevented?
In short, no, rheumatoid arthritis cannot be prevented. With no solid evidence as to what causes the disease, it's obviously difficult to know how to prevent it. Fortunately, though, there are many treatments options that can greatly slow the progression of the disease.
Because the cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown, treatment of the disease is aimed at reducing symptoms, most notably inflammation and the pain it causes. Most rheumatoid arthritis sufferers take some sort of anti-inflammatory medication (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc) along with an analgesic (pain relievers such as acetaminophen, morphine, etc).
Other ways to treat rheumatoid arthritis include immune suppression, immunoadsorption therapy (dilutes concentration of harmful immune proteins in blood), and joint replacement through surgery.
Rheumatoid arthritis can be a painful and debilitating disease. But with the many treatment options available, most cases can be controlled enough to maintain mobility and prevent much of the pain associated with swollen joints. Also bringing hope to many sufferers is the large amount of research being done on rheumatoid arthritis. Hopefully the next decade will shed light on the mysteries of this autoimmune disease.