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What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

An auto-immune disease by nature, rheumatoid arthritis affects multiple systems of the body (hence called a systemic disease) though primarily it attacks the joints. Auto-immune disorders are those in which the body's protector cells ( immune system) mistakenly start attacking the body's own tissues. In this case, the immune system attacks the joints and surrounding tissues and gradually progresses to attack other systems and organs of the body as well.

Rheumatoid arthritis has a global prevalence and affects females three times more commonly as compared to males. It can occur at any age though in most cases, it begins between 25 to 55 years of age.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a potentially crippling disease which runs an intermittent course marked by phases of unpredictable exacerbations and spontaneous remissions. The disease primarily attacks peripheral joints which include the proximal interphalangeal joints (PIP) and metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joints of the hands, wrists, shoulders, elbows, knees, ankles, and metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joints of the feet. The muscles, tendons and ligaments surrounding the joints are also affected by the disease.

The process of inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis progresses through four stages that are as follows:

Synovitis - Inflammation of the synovial membrane that lines the inside of the joint; results in pain and swelling

Gradual destruction of the joint capsule, cartilage and bone

Disturbed alignment of the joints leading to dislocation and subluxation; visible deformities and muscle atrophy are also seen in this stage

Fusion of the joint resulting in total immobility of the joint

Around 10% of the people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis progress to the fourth stage resulting in total disability. Treatment can help to keep the disease under check and slow down its rate of progress.

Chronic pain and disability are amongst the hallmark features of rheumatoid arthritis besides symmetric affection of the joints in many cases. Apart from causing polyarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis also affects skin, eyes, nerves, heart and blood vessels thus earning the name of a systemic disorder.

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