Joint diseases affect about 1 out of every 7 people in Canada. Among them, rheumatoid arthritis represents a major health issue as a result of the impact it has on the daily life of people living with the disease. Below is some information on this condition.
What is arthritis?
People often use the word “arthritis” without really knowing what it refers to exactly. This is not surprising since this medical term encompasses more than 100 joint-related conditions! What all these conditions have in common is joint inflammation. Inflammation causes pain, redness, swelling, and stiffness. Arthritis is a leading cause of disability in Canada. The two most common forms of arthritis are arthrosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Arthrosis is a degenerative disease that affects bone cartilage, which erodes over time. It is the most common joint disease and it progresses with advancing age. Many Canadians have to deal with the symptoms of arthrosis on a daily basis, including pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. Arthrosis must not be confused with rheumatoid arthritis: these are two conditions that are different from each other in many ways.
About rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis affects nearly 1% of the population. It may occur at any age and affects 3 times as many women as men. It is an auto-immune disease. In simple visual terms, it is as if the immune system – one of the body’s defence mechanisms – decided to attack a part of the body as if it failed to recognize it. It usually attacks joints first but sometimes other parts or organs as well, including the eyes, skin, blood vessels, and nerves. Joints under attack will “defend” themselves by using inflammation, which causes pain, redness, swelling, and a sensation of heat.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a progressive disease, which means that damage is limited at first (in most cases) to one or a few joints, but spreads to other joints over the course of the months and years ahead. For the most part, joints that are affected at the outset are those in the hands, wrists, and feet. If inflammation persists and progresses, it can destroy cartilage and other joint tissue permanently, thereby making bones more fragile and leading to deformity of the joint. That is why it is important to diagnose the disease rapidly.
Early signs of rheumatoid arthritis
Below are some signs and symptoms that may indicate the presence of rheumatoid arthritis:
- Unusual pain and stiffness in certain joints, especially upon waking in the morning or following rest
- Joint swelling or deformity
- The presence of heat to the touch
- Unusual fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
If one or more of these symptoms appear and last for more than 2 weeks, be sure to speak with your physician.
The impact of rheumatoid arthritis
Joint pain and deformity can greatly impact your daily life. They can limit joint function, your productivity, your ability to carry out everyday tasks, such as dressing or cooking. This can affect your work and social activities. It is important to tell your physician how intense your symptoms are and the impact they have on your daily life. Managing the disease as promptly as possible is essential to your comfort and well-being – it may also slow down or prevent the development of irreversible lesions in your joints.
Physical activity and rheumatoid arthritis
Physical activity is crucial to maintaining your health and well-being. Engaging in physical exercise allows you to:
- Relieve and prevent pain
- Preserve or increase muscle strength
- Strengthen muscle mass around the affected joints, thereby providing better support
- Maintain a greater range of motion
- Increase your endurance and improve your cardiovascular health
Here’s some advice regarding physical exercise:
- Choose activities that you find fun or entertaining
- Devote at least 30 minutes to your activity, four times a week or more
- Opt for exercise that increases your endurance and is low-impact on your joints, for example, walking, swimming, and biking
- Start slow and progressively increase intensity and frequency. Go at your own pace and shorten the sessions if you feel pain
- Speak to your physician before undertaking a more intense exercise program
- Call on the services of a physiotherapist or kinesiologist to assist you
The range of drugs prescribed for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis is quite extensive. Some people with rheumatoid arthritis are treated with oral medication (taken through the mouth), while others are given injections. Drug treatment is designed to provide pain relief, reduce inflammation and permanent lesions, and enhance quality of life. Finding the “right” medication or the “right combination” of drugs may take time. But be sure to stay positive! Your physician and pharmacist can help you choose the medication that is right for your situation and manage side effects, if any.
Other measures designed to help you
- Apply heat or cold to the affected joints. Heat relieves spasms and stiffness and improves joint mobility. Cold brings down the swelling and inflammation and can provide pain relief. Go with what works best for you
- Take frequent breaks to save energy and protect your joints
- If helpful or necessary, consider using orthopedic devices or functional accessories, such as splints, soles, canes, oversized handles, tap turners, and reaching aids to pick up objects. An occupational therapist is a healthcare professional who can help you to find strategies that allow you to carry out daily tasks effectively despite your condition
- Learn to relax. Enjoying a massage or easy-listening music or engaging in meditation can be very beneficial. Consider taking up yoga, which combines both relaxation and exercises that help your joints
If you live with rheumatoid arthritis, there are many things you can do to reduce its impact on your well-being. Qualified healthcare professionals, including your physician and pharmacist, are available to provide the help you need. Please feel free to seek their advice!