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Living With Autoimmune Conditions: Rheumatoid Arthritis

a person holding their wrist
a person holding their wrist

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease commonly known to cause swelling and joint pain. Though osteoarthritis is currently the most common type of arthritis according to the CDC, the Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network reports that over 1.3 million people are affected by RA in the United States alone. 

This condition, which causes your immune system to attack your own tissue, happens when your antibodies mistake synovial joint fluid as a threat and attack it, causing damage and affecting the lining of your joints instead. Rheumatoid arthritis is not limited to the joints and can cause inflammation and pain in other organs like your lungs, heart, eyes, nerves, blood, and skin. 

So, is this condition preventable? Do high blood pressure, high blood glucose levels, or other risk factors potentially play a role in developing rheumatoid arthritis?

Let’s break down how rheumatoid arthritis develops and how other health conditions may affect its onset.

What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Someone experiencing hand pain

Though scientists have not yet determined what causes rheumatoid arthritis to develop, it’s believed to be linked to an abnormal immune system response when viral or bacterial infections start to attack the joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis commonly appears in “flare-ups,” which vary in occurrence depending on various factors. If the condition is caught early enough by medical professionals, rheumatoid arthritis can be brought into sustained remission for some people. Severe cases, on the other hand, may lead to permanent disabilities

Potential Risk Factors

Research has shown that rheumatoid arthritis is most commonly diagnosed between 30 and sixty years old. Women are three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than men. 

Some doctors believe that hormonal changes in women are linked to developing rheumatoid arthritis, especially as women get older and their hormone levels decrease. 

Doctors recommend disclosing any family history of this condition as rheumatoid arthritis can be passed down genetically. The risk of developing RA is four times greater if a first-degree family member has it, so monitoring symptoms could help catch the disease in its early stages for those who are at higher risk. Unfortunately, the condition is not limited to aging adults, as approximately 300,000 children are diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in the United States. 

For people who already have an autoimmune condition (like type 1 diabetes), the risk of developing a second one during their lifetime rises to over 25 percent. 

Other studies have shown that smoking or inhaling secondhand smoke may also increase your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

7 Common Symptoms Associated with Rheumatoid Arthritis

A person holding their wrist after typing

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, progressive disease, meaning that as it goes undiagnosed, it will continue to worsen. 

Usually, it begins with swelling and stiffness in the joints. As with many autoimmune disorders, this condition can affect everyone differently, and symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis can vary.

Here are seven of the most common symptoms: 

1) Joint Pain

One of the most common symptoms in rheumatoid arthritis patients is joint pain and stiffness. Flare-ups are most commonly observed in the wrists, feet, and ankles but are not limited to these areas. If you develop rheumatoid arthritis, you may find that you're stiff for a long time after waking up in the morning. 

2) Weakness and Loss of Mobility

People with rheumatoid arthritis may find difficulty lifting or moving with the same strength they used to. You may also begin to experience limited mobility and trouble with physical activity, and it can impair your ability to walk and get regular exercise. 

3) Fatigue

Chronic fatigue is another symptom of RA, which may cause feelings of fatigue. You may never feel well-rested even after sleeping. Unexplained fever, or temperatures between 100.4 and 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit, is sometimes associated with RA. 

4) Loss of Appetite

With rheumatoid arthritis, you may begin to eat less than you used to. This symptom may also lead to noticeable weight loss.

5) Joint Deformity

Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause deformities in the fingers and joints due to swelling. People who develop rheumatoid arthritis see varying degrees of joint swelling and inflammation. 

6) Symmetrical Symptoms

Another symptom of rheumatoid arthritis is experiencing pain in the same places on both sides of your body (i.e., pain in both wrists in the same spot). 

7) Depression

If you develop rheumatoid arthritis, you may feel depressed or experience depressive symptoms in the lead-up to your diagnosis. 

How to Detect Rheumatoid Arthritis

A doctor examining someone's joint

If you experience any of the above symptoms, your doctor may take x-rays or ultrasounds to examine your joints and organs for inflammation and other signs of the disease. 

Several blood tests can also help doctors determine whether a person’s symptoms indicate RA. Doctors may run a complete metabolic panel to measure red blood cell count or look for signs of inflammation.

As rheumatoid arthritis can also cause the body to produce antibodies called rheumatoid factor and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide, doctors may run blood tests to detect the presence of these antibodies.

If a blood test indicates the presence of these antibodies, you may be diagnosed with seropositive rheumatoid arthritis. Some patients do not test positive for either of these antibodies, which is commonly diagnosed as seronegative rheumatoid arthritis if you're suspected (through other tests) to have RA.

Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis

Although there is no known cure for rheumatoid arthritis, treatment options for this chronic disease have improved in recent years. Modern treatments and medications for arthritis care allow many suffering from RA to lead lives almost as normally as they did before developing the condition. However, detecting it as early as possible is essential to prevent RA from advancing.

One of the most effective treatment options prescribed is DMARDs or disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs. These anti-inflammatory drugs aim to slow the progression of joint damage caused by the condition. Some patients may also benefit from physical therapy paired with medication. 

When prescribing treatment options for rheumatoid arthritis, doctors seek to lessen joint inflammation and better enable you to perform your everyday routines. Just as most patients experience different symptoms, most patients also need different treatments and may have to modify their treatment regimen often. 

Are Your Blood Sugar Levels Connected to Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Someone using a glucose monitor

The Arthritis Foundation warns that chronic inflammation can increase the risk of high blood sugar levels and obesity. Other studies have also shown that sustained inflammation in the body can lead to cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes.

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis may have abnormal glucose metabolism compared to the general population, leading scientists to recommend that patients with RA take steps toward diabetes mellitus prevention to lower their risk of developing the condition.

Research also attributes the link between rheumatoid arthritis and an increased risk for type 2 diabetes to some of the medications, such as corticosteroids, commonly prescribed to treat RA. 

Unfortunately, those who develop diabetes also commonly experience nerve damage, neuropathy, and conditions such as Charcot’s joint, which can lead to joint pain and has been connected to rheumatoid arthritis.

If you are someone with rheumatoid arthritis, you should always follow your doctor’s prescribed treatment regimen. However, there may be some benefits to optimizing your nutrition to reduce inflammation and blood sugar levels.

Dietary Guidelines to Help With Rheumatoid Arthritis

a person cutting broccoli

There is not enough evidence to support that those with rheumatoid arthritis should avoid certain foods. Still, there are a few things that you can implement into your diet to reduce inflammation, increase bone strength, and decrease other side effects of the disease.

Eat More Fiber

Getting enough fiber in your diet can help reduce inflammation for those with rheumatoid arthritis and can even help lower your risk of diabetes

A high fiber diet may help reduce C-reactive protein levels in the blood, which can help prevent inflammation for people with RA and heart disease.

Eat Foods Rich in Antioxidants

Studies have found that antioxidant-rich foods may slow down disease flares. While the research is not strong enough to suggest that these foods are effective on their own, they may be helpful to complement other forms of treatment. To add more antioxidants into your diet, stock up on things like cranberries, blueberries, leafy greens and cherries.

Take Your Supplements

Some research has shown that taking omega-3 supplements can help reduce short-term symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. If possible however, getting omega-3 straight from food sources like fatty fish, algae, and nuts is preferable. 

Adding cumin to your diet may also help reduce inflammation in patients with this condition. While more research is still needed to determine the best way cumin can be incorporated into your diet to be effective, adding some cumin to your favorite rice dish can be a great way to spice things up.

To learn more about various autoimmune conditions, read our articles on Hashimoto’s, Graves’ Disease, Celiac Disease, and Multiple Sclerosis.

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Jordyn Wallerius, MS, RDN, CD

Reviewed by: Jordyn Wallerius, MS, RDN, CD

Jordyn has a bachelor’s degree in biology, a graduate degree in Human Nutrition and completed a dietetic internship at the Memphis VA. She's a dietitian at Nutrisense, and has experience working as a clinical dietitian at a VA medical center specializing in oncology and at the Mayo Clinic, working with a wide range of patients ranging from neonates in the NICU to adult ICU.

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