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Aches & Pains: Rheumatoid Arthritis

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    Sunday, July 14, 2013, 4:30 PM -

    Rheumatoid Arthritis FAQs

    1. What is rheumatoid (room-a-toid) arthritis?
    2. How common is rheumatoid arthritis?
    3. What are the warning signs of rheumatoid arthritis?
    4. What causes rheumatoid arthritis?
    5. What can you do about rheumatoid arthritis?
    6. What else should I know about Biologics?
    7. Additional Tips for Living Well


    1. What is rheumatoid (room-a-toid) arthritis?

    • RA is an autoimmune disease. This means that your immune system attacks other parts of your body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes redness, pain, swelling or a hot (or warm) feeling in the lining of a joint, the place where 2 or more bones come together.
    • This redness, pain, swelling and heat around the joint is called inflammation.
    • The inflammation may also affect other internal organs, such as the eyes, lungs, or heart.
    • RA can affect any joint, but the most common places are the hands or feet.

    The body's immune system attacks healthy joints. This causes inflammation in the lining of the joints. It can also affect other parts of the body, such as the eyes, lungs or heart. The inflammation can be painful. It can lead to permanent damage if the disease is not treated and controlled.

    Joint damage can occur even in cases where the pain is not severe. It can happen even in the early stages of the disease. For many people with RA, damage has shown up on X-rays of the hands and feet within two years of the onset of the disease. But it may be too late to fix by the time X-rays discover the problem. One study found that damage got worse more quickly during the first two years, and 75 per cent of all damage happened in the first five years.

    Severe damage can lead to permanent joint deformity and disability. It can cause so much pain and swelling that you may have difficulty walking. You may have trouble using your hands for routine activities, such as dressing and cooking.

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    2. How common is rheumatoid arthritis?

    • It affects 300,000 (1 in 100) Canadians.
    • RA affects women three times more often than men.
    • Most people develop RA between the ages of 25 and 50.

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    3. What are the warning signs of rheumatoid arthritis?

    • Morning stiffness that lasts longer than 30 minutes.
    • Pain in three or more joints at the same time.
    • Pain in a joint all night long.
    • Pain in the same joints on both sides of your body. This is called a symmetrical pattern.

    RA may start gradually or with a sudden, severe attack with flu-like symptoms. It's important to remember that RA symptoms vary from person to person. In some people the disease will be mild with periods of activity or joint inflammation (flare-ups) and inactivity (remissions). In other cases the disease will be continuously active and appear to get worse, or progress, over time. You may feel weak and tired, you may have a fever or lose weight, but joint pain will be the main problem. If any warning sign lasts more than two weeks, see your doctor. If your doctor believes that you have RA, it is important to see a rheumatologist right away, to begin treatment.

    Joints Affected - One important way to distinguish RA from other forms of arthritis is by the pattern of joint involvement. For example, RA affects the wrist and many of the hand joints but usually not the joints that are closest to the fingernails.

    Osteoarthritis, in contrast , affects those joints closest to the fingernails more often than other areas of the hand. In RA, the joints tend to be involved in a symmetrical pattern. That is, if the knuckles on the right hand are inflamed, the knuckles on the left hand are likely to be inflamed as well.

    Other joints commonly affected by RA include the elbows, shoulders, neck, jaw, feet, ankles, knees, and hips. Other than the neck, the spine usually is not directly affected by RA.

    Non-joint Involvement - Along with painful, inflamed joints, RA can cause inflammation in other body tissues and organs. In 20% of cases, lumps called rheumatoid nodules develop under the skin, often over bony areas. These occur most often around the elbow but can be found elsewhere on the body and even in internal organs. Occasionally, people with RA will develop inflammation of the membranes that surround the heart and lung or inflammation of the lung tissue itself. Inflammation of tear glands and salivary glands (called sicca syndrome) results in dry eyes and dry mouth. Rarely, RA causes inflammation of the blood vessels (vasculitis), which affects the skin, nerves and other organs.

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    4. What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

    • The exact cause is unknown.
    • Some people with rheumatoid arthritis have other family members with the same disease.
    • However, for many people, they are not aware of any relative with rheumatoid arthritis.

    No one knows for sure what causes RA, although scientists are well on their way to understanding the events that lead to abnormal responses of the body's immune system. We know the disease is not necessarily passed on from generation to generation, but the gene that influences the tendency to have RA is more common in the families of people who have RA. Not everyone who inherits this gene will develop the disease.

    Canadian scientists are trying to learn why the immune system attacks healthy body tissues. They are also trying to find medicines to help prevent the joint swelling that happens in RA. In fact, The Arthritis Society funds many leading-edge research projects that bring vital new insights and lead to new and better treatments for RA.

    For example, at the University of Sherbrooke, The Arthritis Society is funding a study to define markers in the blood that will tell us who will have the mild or serious form of rheumatoid arthritis. At the University of Western Ontario, a study we are funding is looking at a new, very important protein marker for RA. This study will help us understand how our immune system begins to attack joints. Along with the control of the disease, we must also learn how to regenerate and repair joint tissue, as is the case with two studies we are funding at the Universities of Calgary and Laval. One is learning how genes control the growth of our bones and the other is building frameworks for cells to grow along and repair damaged tissue in our joints.

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    5. What can you do about rheumatoid arthritis?

    • If your doctor thinks you have rheumatoid arthritis, he or she will usually refer you to a rheumatologist (room-a-tol-o-jist). 
    • A rheumatologist is a doctor who has received special training in the diagnosis and treatment of problems with joints, muscles and bones.
    • If you start the treatments early, you can keep the disease under control and avoid severe damage to the joints. 
    • There are steps you can take to deal with the pain and cope with the disease. It is important that you learn as much as you can about this disease. Speaking with people who are specialists in arthritis care can provide you with the necessary information.

    RA can have a serious impact on a person's life and well-being, especially if it is not diagnosed and treated early. Establishing the correct diagnosis early is very important because the sooner appropriate treatment is started the better the chance of avoiding disability or deformity.

    Your doctor may be able to diagnose RA based on your medical history and a physical examination. Usually he or she will order certain tests to help confirm the diagnosis, to determine how much joint damage exists, or to distinguish RA from other types of arthritis. These tests may include blood tests (erythrocyte sedimentation rate, RA factor, etc.), X-rays or joint fluid tests. If you are diagnosed with RA, speak to your doctor about referring you to a rheumatologist (an arthritis specialist).

    There is no cure for RA, but when you are diagnosed early and start the right treatment, you can take control of your disease and avoid severe damage to your joints. Most people with RA can lead active and productive lives with the help of the right medication, surgery (in some cases), exercise, rest and joint protection techniques.

    There are four types of medicine used to treat RA:

    Medicine: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) is a type of medicine that reduces pain and swelling. However, they do not prevent further joint damage. Two common NSAIDS are Aspirin and Advil.

    These medications are used to reduce pain and swelling. They include some of the oldest RA treatments, including coated acetylsalicylic acid, also known as ASA (Aspirin, Anacin, etc.) and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, etc.), which you can buy without a prescription. If you have more severe pain and swelling, your doctor may prescribe a different kind of NSAID such as Naprosyn, Relafen, Indocid, Voltaren, Feldene, or Clinoril.

    You may need to take NSAIDs for several weeks before they take effect completely. Sometimes these medications can cause stomach upset, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Elderly people, people with high blood pressure, people with kidney problems, people who have had a previous stomach ulcer, and people with congestive heart failure or those who have had a previous heart attack or stroke should talk to their doctor before taking any NSAID. NSAIDs can also interact with blood thinners such as warfarin. With the exception of small dose ASA for circulation problems, two different NSAIDs should not be taken at the same time.

    COX-2 inhibitors (e.g. Celebrex, Prexige) are a specific kind of NSAID that may be prescribed if traditional NSAIDs are hard on your stomach, or if you have experienced stomach ulcers. People who have had a heart attack or stroke or experienced serious chest pain related to heart disease should not use NSAIDs or COXIBs. If you are unsure, speak to your doctor to determine if this type of treatment is right for you.

    Medicine: Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDS)

    • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDS) is a family of medicines that try to stop RA from getting worse. They work by slowing or stopping the immune system from attacking the joints. DMARDS take about one to three months before they begin to make a difference in the pain and swelling.

    Persistent inflammation in several joints, due to inflammatory arthritis, for longer than six weeks requires stronger medicine; that's when the so-called disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) (pronounced DEE-mardz) are often used. Rheumatologists usually prescribe this class of medication in addition to NSAIDs. While the NSAID reduces day-to-day inflammation, the DMARD slows down the biological processes that are the driving force behind persistent inflammation.

    These drugs try to stop cells in your immune system that cause the pain and swelling. If they are started early in the condition, DMARDs can retard or even stop the progression of joint damage — but, they cannot fix joint damage that has already occurred.

    It generally takes about one to three months for DMARDs to fully take effect. The fastest acting, best tolerated and most commonly prescribed DMARD is methotrexate (MTX). It is usually taken in pill form, and to be most effective, it should be taken at the same time, once per week. Patients will often choose a day that places the least demands on them since they may feel unwell (e.g. fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite or headache) for 24 hours after treatment. Some patients may require injections of methotrexate if they cannot absorb the medication in pill form.

    Rheumatologists often prefer to use DMARDs like MTX on their own. However, many studies have shown that the outcome of two or three of these medications used in combination, is more effective at managing the disease. Other DMARDs used on their own or in combination with MTX, include hydroxychloroquine, sulfasalazine and cyclosporine.

    Other DMARDs are azathioprine (Imuran), leflunomide (Arava) and gold therapy (Myochrisine). Azathioprine is an immune suppressant drug, that is taken in pill form once daily. Leflunomide is a new medication and is similar to MTX and azathioprine but works in a slightly different way. It is taken in pill form every day. When first starting leflunomide, you will need to take a high dose for a few days until the drug reaches a good level in your system. After the first three days, you will take a lower dose each day.

    Gold injections are a well known, older treatment that is given into the muscle. Doctors usually start with a low test dose, followed by a higher weekly dose over five to six months. If your arthritis has improved, you may gradually reduce the dose and extend the time between treatments. Because there are many newer treatments, Gold is not given as frequently in recent years, but it remains an excellent alternative for some patients.

    Side effects and blood monitoring
    All DMARDs have potential side effects. Each one is different and you must learn from your doctor what to expect from each drug you try. In most cases, DMARDs require regular blood tests to monitor side effects. Some people require an adjustment to their dosage or a change to a different type of medication.

    Medicine: Corticosteroids

    • These are strong drugs for really bad swelling.
    • Your doctor can give you the drug by a needle into the affected joint.
    • You should rest the joint after treatment, for up to three days.
    • You can get this drug in a pill form, called Prednisone, to reduce inflammation if many joints are affected at the same time. But the pills are only for serious cases of RA.

    Corticosteroids are man-made drugs that closely resemble cortisone, a hormone natural produced by the body. In RA, these drugs are used to treat extreme inflammation that is accompanied by severe pain and stiffness. They are also used to treat systemic RA, which may affect the lining of the lungs and blood vessels.

    Corticosteroids sometimes are given as injection into one or more joints or other areas of inflammation. While eliminating the serious side effects, injections may have their own harmful results on the joints if given more than a few times a year.

    The most common form is prednisone, taken in pill form. Side effects from long term use may include cataracts, high blood pressure, sleep problems, muscle loss, bruising, thinning of the bones (osteoporosis), weight gain and susceptibility to infections. The goal with this and most drugs is to find the lowest effective dose that will avoid as many of the side effects as possible.

    Medicine: Biologic Response Modifiers ("Biologics")

    • Biologics are newer drugs that are becoming available for RA patients that fail to respond to conventional treatment. These drugs block specific hormones which are involved in the inflammatory process.

    In people with rheumatoid arthritis, proteins called Tumour Necrosis Factor (TNF) and Interleukin-1(IL-1) are present in the blood and joints in excessive amounts where they increase inflammation (pain,swelling, & stiffness). Biologics are specially engineered medications which block the effects of TNF (Enbrel, Humira, Orencia, Remicade, Rituxan) or IL-1 (Kineret).

    Biologics are used to treat moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis. These medications work quickly to ease inflammation and are often used in combination with other DMARDs such as methotrexate. Biologics available and approved by Health Canada for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis include Enbrel, Humira, Kineret, Orencia, Remicade and Rituxan. Your physician will explain the differences between these medications should he or she prescribe a biologic for your rheumatoid arthritis.

    Depending on the biologic prescribed; they are either given by injection at home or by an intravenous infusion at a clinic. Side effects occasionally seen with these medications include mild skin reactions at the injection site, headaches or dizziness, colds or sinus infections, and nausea or diarrhea. Your doctor will discuss all of the other side effects of these medications before he or she prescribes them.

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    6. What else should I know about Biologics?

    Biologics work by suppressing your immune system which can make it slightly harder for you to fight off infections. Please inform your doctor if you are prone to frequent infections. It is advisable to stop your medication and call your doctor if you develop a fever or if you have or think you have an infection. Before starting biologics, your doctor should check for other infections, such as tuberculosis.

    Biologic treatments are costly, and can range anywhere from $15,000 to over $25,000 per year. Depending on the type of insurance coverage you have, treatments may be fully covered or you may be required to share the cost. Generally, provincial plans or private insurance companies will require patients to attempt conventional treatments before they will cover biologics.

    A Word about Medication Safety
    The need to effectively monitor new drugs once they have been approved and introduced into the market has been a key advocacy issue for The Arthritis Society for several years. This advocacy helps to ensure that unfavorable side effects are reported, documented, and addressed. For regular updates on medications available in Canada, visit www.arthritis.ca/tips/medications.

    All medications have potential side effects whether they are taken by themselves or in combination with other herbal, over-the-counter and prescription medications. It is therefore important for patients to discuss the benefits and potential side effects of all their medications with their doctor.

    Health Canada's Marketed Health Products Directorate (MHPD) has recently developed a new website, named MedEffect. MedEffect's goal is to provide centralized access to new safety information about health products in an easy to find, easy to remember location. It also aims to make it as simple and efficient as possible for health professionals and consumers to complete and submit adverse reaction reports. Finally, it helps to build awareness about the importance of submitting adverse reaction reports to identify and communicate potential risks associated with certain drugs or health products. To find out more, visit: www.healthcanada.gc.ca/medeffect or call toll-free 1-866-234-2345.


    • Exercise helps reduce pain, and prevent further joint damage.
    • Exercise also helps you to maintain a healthy weight, which puts less strain on the joints.
    • Exercise of inflamed joints strengthens the muscles around the joint. This results in less pain.
    • There are three types of exercises:
      • Range of motion exercises reduce stiffness and helps keep joints moving. A range of motion exercise for your shoulder would be to move your arm in a large circle.
      • Strengthening exercises maintain or increase muscle strength.
      • Endurance exercises strengthen your heart, give you energy and control your weight. These include walking, swimming and cycling.

    Exercise helps lessen symptoms of RA and can make you feel better overall. Appropriate and moderate stretching and strengthening will help relieve the pain and keep the muscles and tendons around the affected joint flexible and strong. Low impact exercises like swimming, walking, water aerobics and stationary bicycling can all reduce pain while maintaining strength, flexibility and cardiovascular function. Check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program.

    Physical therapists can teach you other techniques to manage the pain and restore joint motion and muscle strength. Together with occupational therapists, they can assist you in maintaining optimal function at work, in the home and during leisure activities.


    • Heat helps relax aching muscles, and reduces joint pain and soreness. For example, take a hot shower.
    • Cold helps to lessen the pain and swelling in a joint. For example, put an ice pack on your knee.

    Heat applied to an arthritic area can help relax aching muscles, and reduce pain and soreness. It promotes blood circulation, which nourishes and detoxifies muscle fibers. Taking a hot shower is a great way to help reduce pain and stiffness. Heat should not be applied to an already inflamed joint however to avoid making symptoms worse.

    Cold applied to inflamed joints reduces pain and swelling by constricting blood flow. Applying ice or cold packs appears to decrease inflammation and is recommended when joints are inflamed.

    Protect Your Joints

    • Be kind to your body. After doing heavy work, or doing the same task over and over, stop. Slow down by doing an easy task, or by taking a rest.
    • Use your back, arms and legs in safe ways to avoid stress on joints. For example, carry a heavy load close to your body.
    • Use helpful tools in your daily tasks such as a cart to carry your grocery bags, or an enlarged handle that fits over a knife handle so you can hold it easily. A cane will help you to walk more safely. A grab bar, which attaches to a shower, will help you to get in and out of the tub more easily.

    Protecting your joints means using your joints in ways that avoid excess mechanical stress from daily tasks. Benefits include less pain and greater ease in doing tasks. Three main techniques to protect your joints include:

    Pacing, by alternating heavy or repeated tasks with easier tasks or breaks, reduces the stress on painful joints and allows weakened muscles to rest. Pacing and planning also provide you with ways to deal with the fatigue that is often associated with RA.

    Positioning joints wisely helps you use them in ways that avoid extra stress (for example, use larger, stronger joints to carry loads and change position frequently). Some people will be given splints or orthotic devices that help affected joints such as the fingers, to rest in a good position.

    Using assistive devices, such as canes, raised chairs, grip and reaching aids, can help simplify daily tasks. Using grab bars and shower seats are important steps towards conserving energy and avoiding falls.

    Weight control for people with RA usually means trying to maintain a recommended, healthy weight. People with RA are generally not obese, and, if so, it's usually because they have become less active. Most people are likely to be more concerned about anaemia (low red blood cell count) and uncontrolled weight loss. Nevertheless, staying at your recommended weight can help lessen pain by reducing stress on the joints. If you plan to lose weight, discuss the best program for you with your doctor and a dietician.


    • Relaxing the muscles around an inflamed joint reduces pain.
    • There are many ways to relax. Try deep breathing exercises. Listen to music or relaxation tapes. Meditate or pray. Another way to relax is to imagine, or visualize a pleasant activity such as lying on the beach, or sitting in front of a fireplace.

    Developing good relaxation and coping skills can give you a greater feeling of control over your arthritis and a more positive outlook.

    You and your doctor may consider surgery, if one of your joint becomes badly damaged, or if the pain is too strong.

    Some people with severe, advanced RA that has not responded to conservative management, may benefit from surgery. Benefits include less pain, better movement and function, and in some cases, better physical appearance.

    There are a number of different kinds of surgery for RA ranging from minor procedures to complete joint reconstruction. Arthroscopic surgery, for example, involves using a scope through a small incision and cleaning or removing inflamed or damaged joint tissue. Some kinds of surgery repair bone deformity through realigning joints, fusing joints, or rebuilding parts of joints.

    Joint reconstruction involves removing all or parts of the damaged joint and replacing them with artificial materials. Joints that may benefit from surgery include: certain joints of the hands and feet; knees; hips; wrists; elbows; and shoulders.

    The course of RA is variable and the results of various types of treatment differ from person to person. Most people with RA can maintain an active lifestyle and manage very well with the combined benefits of medication, balancing exercise and rest, and employing joint protection techniques.

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    7. Additional Tips for Living Well

    • The Arthritis Society offers a variety of programs and services that can be helpful.
    • You can reach the Society at 1-800-321-1433 from anywhere in Canada.
    • You can also reach us through our Web site at www.arthritis.ca

    Along with the physical symptoms of arthritis, many people experience feelings of helplessness and depression. Learning daily living strategies to manage your arthritis gives you a greater feeling of control and a more positive outlook. To get the best results, people affected by arthritis need to form close ties with their doctors and therapists, and become full partners in their treatment. From our perspective, it's all part of 'living well with arthritis.' There are several resources you can use in finding out how best to manage your own arthritis. Here are a few:

    • The Arthritis Self-Management Program (ASMP) is a unique self-help program offered by The Arthritis Society to help you better control and manage your arthritis.
    • The Open Forum within this Web site is an opportunity to discuss and share information with other visitors - people who, through their own experiences, may be able to offer some useful insights.

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    Of course, there are many other valuable resources for people with arthritis. If you're unclear about where to look for help, be sure to call The Arthritis Society at 1-800-321-1433.

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