If left untreated, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can lead to long-term joint damage, resulting in chronic pain, loss of function and disability.
RA is a chronic form of arthritis (joint swelling and tenderness), caused when the body’s immune system (which fights infections) attacks joints by mistake, causing chronic inflammation and damage.
According to Dr Riette du Toit, the Head of the Rheumatology Division at Tygerberg Hospital in the Western Cape, there is a genetic link with the development of RA. But several lifestyle factors could also activate the abnormal immune response, including smoking and poor dental hygiene.
While RA mainly affects women between the ages of 30 and 40, it can also affect men and children.
It typically affects smaller joints, especially in the hands and feet, but can also affect the elbows, knees, shoulders and, in some patients, other organ systems, including the eyes, lungs and skin, says Dr Du Toit.
“Many of our patients go to bed with pain and get up with pain. They find it difficult to grip and hold things, and even the smallest tasks, like washing their hair or dressing, are a struggle,” says Du Toit.
If a doctor suspects that their patient has RA, they will perform a thorough physical examination and order specific blood tests and joint X-rays.
While RA can’t be cured, it can be treated. An early, accurate diagnosis, followed by appropriate treatment, can provide significant relief from symptoms.
Regular follow-ups, with discussions between patient and doctor, remain an essential way to improve disease control and prevent joint and organ damage, says Du Toit.
She adds that taking your medication properly and discussing any concerns or side effects with your doctor is essential.
It’s also important to educate yourself about your condition, through reliable sources such as the Arthritis Foundation of South Africa (www.arthritis.org.za). Also consider joining a support group, where you can share challenges and ideas.
“Stay positive for your family. Continue to use every opportunity to do the things you love. For example, working in the garden on better days," says Du Toit.
If you are concerned that you may have RA, visit your closest healthcare facility.
This information was supplied by the Western Cape Department of health.