What is it?
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is the most common autoimmune disease known currently and commonly affects symmetrically in the body. This means if one wrist is affected, the other most likely will be affected as well. Inflammation and joint damage can cause redness, hot and swollen joints, and stiffness and painfulness during motion.
What are common symptoms?
- Joint pain, tenderness, swelling or stiffness lasting longer than 6 weeks
- Morning stiffness lasting longer than 30 minutes
- Symmetrical joints are affected (commonly smaller joints such as fingers or wrists are typically affected first)
- A “flare”: a flare of RA is when the immune system is in overdrive, it is attacking joints at a higher rate. This causes significant increases in pain, redness and swollen joints and stiffness.
Why does it occur?
RA occurs when the immune system is malfunctioning, causing our immune system to attack joint linings, also called joint capsules or synovium. The most common joints affected including hands, knees or ankles. This autoimmune disease can also have a genetic component, so if you have family members with RA your chances may be increased. Additionally, women are more likely to develop RA than men.
How do we treat it?
Treating the symptoms and managing a flare are the highest priorities for hand therapy related to RA. Joint protection and deformity prevention are most common, utilizing splinting and stabilization with silver ring splints or drifting splints. Resting and taking intentional breaks during heavy work activities, healthy eating habits and topical pain relievers. Heat and cold therapy (when appropriate), stress reduction and hand therapy as well as consultation with a rheumatologist can give more specific care.
- During a flare: conserving energy and moving within a pain-free range of motion –don't try to “push through the pain” your body is attacking itself and causing more damage. Managing swelling and pain with ice therapy NOT heat therapy. During a flare heat causes increased blood flow and swelling, continuing or increasing flare symptoms.
Hitting the highlights:
- Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease which attacks joint synovium leading to redness, swelling, joint pain and stiffness as well as weakness. These symptoms can also increase significantly during a flare.
- RA symptoms and flaring can be treated well by a certified hand therapist and consultation with a rheumatologist will help with long term symptom management.