Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which cells of the body mistakenly attack itself. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the attack centers on the joints - although many other organ systems can also be affected. Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation to the tissue lining the joints, and this inflammation ultimately damages the joint cartilage. This damage cannot be reversed.
Women are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than men, and the disease usually begins between the ages of 30 and 60. Rheumatoid arthritis often affects the hands, and usually affects both hands, as well as other joints like wrists, elbows, knees, and hips. Symptoms include joint pain, swelling and in some cases, heat or redness. The joint gradually becomes less mobile and may also become deformed.
Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis is directed toward relieving pain and inflammation and preventing the progression of the disease. Very significant advances have been made in the medical treatment, and these medications have made surgery much less common for this problem. These medications do carry side effects and should be taken under the direction of a knowledgeable medical specialist. People with rheumatoid arthritis may have periods of few symptoms (remission), or an acute attack (flare). Exercise is important to maintain mobility and flexibility of the joints, but it must be balanced with rest. Splints may also be used to slow the progression of deformities.
Since the joint damage of rheumatoid arthritis is progressive, it may eventually damage joints to the point where the function is severely compromised. Surgical options include synovectomy (removing the abnormal lining of the joint), tendon repair for ruptures, joint fusion, and joint replacement.
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