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Last modified on August 25th, 2020
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, progressive autoimmune disorder in which the body’s disease-fighting systems attack a person’s own tissues.
In rheumatoid arthritis, the tissues of the joints are damaged. Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most common autoimmune disorder and although it rarely leads to death, it’s well-known for causing severe pain and joint damage.
It’s the most common cause of disability in the United States.
Rheumatoid arthritis arises when the immune system attacks the membrane that surrounds a person’s joints. The synovial membrane is a thin, flexible, and tough kind of connective tissue that makes lubricating fluid for joints.
It also lines the interior surface of joints. Rheumatoid arthritis leads to the slow destruction of these tissues through chronic inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis can also attack the tissues of other major organ systems, including the blood vessels, lungs, and heart.
Because it’s progressive, rheumatoid arthritis becomes more severe over time.
What’s the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is extremely common. It affects hundreds of millions of people throughout the world and is caused by wear and tear on cartilage covering the ends of bones within joints.
This tough cartilage protects the sensitive ends of bones but erodes over time as a function of aging. It’s not the result of a disease process, unlike rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis results from the immune system destroying the body’s tissues. Like lupus, it’s an autoimmune disorder that’s treatable but not currently curable.
Risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis takes years to develop and is influenced by factors researchers don’t fully understand yet, but the following concerns are the most common issues leading to rheumatoid arthritis. `
- People with RA tend to have family members with RA, but no precise gene has been identified yet. However, people who have Human Leukocyte Antigen Class II genes are more vulnerable to getting rheumatoid arthritis, especially if other predisposing factors are present.
- Women are twice as likely to have RA than men, with the hormone estrogen being implicated in studies as a contributing factor.
- Rheumatoid arthritis strikes people over 60 most commonly.
- Cigarette smoking increases a person’s chances of developing RA.
- Obesity is associated with a greater likelihood of RA.
Diagnosing Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatologists, physicians who treat autoimmune disorders that attack tissues, use several kinds of tests to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis, such as blood tests and imaging (X-rays).
A rheumatoid factor blood test series can reveal the presence of certain proteins and antibodies that develop primarily in people with RA. Rheumatologists also use ultrasound and MRI exams to help diagnose RA.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms
RA begins in the small joints, like those of the fingers. Stiffness in those joints upon waking is common. People with RA usually have to be up and moving for an hour or more in the morning before their affected joints move freely.
Over time, these joints will suffer an increasingly restricted range of movement, and stiffness will last all day.
As rheumatoid arthritis goes on, it typically progresses to the joints of the wrists, elbows, ankles, hips, and shoulders. The immune response that causes inflammation of the joints affects other organs and tissues throughout the body in about 40 percent of those with RA.
These include a person’s:
- Salivary glands
Rheumatoid arthritis can be episodic, with intense periods of pain and swelling, followed by periods of lessened symptoms. Rheumatoid arthritis sometimes causes joints to shift out of place, causing the classic gnarled and deformed appearance of joints.
Other signs and symptoms of RA include:
- Swollen joints and symmetrically affected joints. Joints become swollen and painful to the touch. RA often causes joints to be affected bilaterally; that is, a joint that’s affected on one side of the body will likewise be affected on the other side. This happens because RA targets the tissues that are unique to each joint and connective tissue. When one type of joint or tendon becomes affected, others in the body follow suit.
- Pain is a hallmark symptom of RA. The tissues inside the affected joints swell with inflammation, becoming sore and achy. Pain from rheumatoid arthritis ranges from severe to incapacitating.
- About 80 percent of people with RA experience moderate to severe fatigue.
- Decreased appetite. People with RA tend to lose weight due to a decreased appetite.
Rheumatoid arthritis progresses through four stages:
- Synovial tissue swells and becomes painful. Diagnosis is usually made at this stage.
- RA damages cartilage, starting loss of mobility
- Bone destruction. Severe RA. Inflammation beings to destroy bone tissue with significant deformities of the bones starting.
- Complete disability. At this stage, most of the tissue vulnerable to RA has been destroyed and disability becomes complete.
Conventional Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis
There is no cure for RA, but there are several conventional treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are a group of unrelated drugs that each has some use in slowing down the progression of RA. Methotrexate and hydroxychloroquine are the most common of these. Other DMARDs include:
Biologic agents like tofacitinib and Rituxan are newer medications that target complex kinds of proteins that are present in RA.
They reduce the amount and activity of these proteins in the affected tissues and joints, reducing tissue swelling and damage, but they also come with significant risks of infection and for some people, blood clots.
All DMARDs have significant side-effects, including harm to bone marrow, liver damage, and lung damage.
Rheumatoid arthritis pain is often severe. Pain-managing drugs include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs reduce inflammation and pain. Naproxen sodium and ibuprofen are two other-the-counter formulations that are available. NSAIDs can harm the lining of the stomach, the liver, and the kidneys if taken at high dosages for too long.
- Prednisone is a common pain-reducer. It works by reducing swelling and inflammation.
Supplement Therapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Therapy with over-the-counter natural supplements can help reduce pain, inflammation, and swelling in the tissues that rheumatoid arthritis harms. It’s important to consult with a doctor before starting supplements, as some supplements can work against other medications you may be taking.
Just because a supplement for rheumatoid arthritis is all-natural doesn’t mean it can’t have side effects, so it’s important to consult with your physician before embarking on a supplement regimen.
Note also that supplements that work well for other kinds of arthritis, like osteoarthritis, may not be as effective for RA.
What supplements are good for rheumatoid arthritis?
A top rheumatoid arthritis supplement may reduce the swelling of inflamed joint tissues or might attack pain directly.
Typically, the best rheumatoid arthritis supplements reduce inflammatory agents in the bloodstream, while alleviating the pain from aggravated joints.
If you’re curious about what supplements are good for rheumatoid arthritis, read on.
One of the best rheumatoid arthritis supplements, fish oil supplements:
- Come from ocean fish like tuna, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, and salmon
- Also come from plant sources, like flax. Plant sources contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
- Contain omega-3 fatty acids that reduce inflammation throughout the body, especially in joints
- Are loaded with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Help lower the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids from fried and processed foods
Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation throughout the body. They’re particularly useful for reducing swelling in the joints caused by rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
A highly rated fish oil supplement found on Amazon.com is:
Each serving (2 capsules) contains 2000 milligrams of inflammation-fighting fatty acids, including:
- 800 mg of EPA
- 600 mg of DHA
- Enteric coating prevents any fishy aftertaste
- From wild-caught fish from an FDA-registered facility
- Purified oils through molecular distillation mean no heavy metals, no mercury, no other toxins
Fish oil can act as a minor blood thinner. If you’re taking a blood thinner, check with your doctor before starting fish oil supplements for rheumatoid arthritis.
- Helps prevent inflammation
- Reduces inflammation and swelling in joints
- Is a powerful anti-oxidant
- Fights free radical molecules that harm tissues, especially joint tissues prone to inflammation
- Boosts levels of Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor, a hormone that protects against aging and promotes new cell growth
- Reduces pain due to inflammatory diseases
Curcumin is found in turmeric, a spice used as a healthy food ingredient for thousands of years. Curcumin gives turmeric its bright yellow color and is responsible for the health benefits that come from turmeric. It has been found to be especially helpful in reducing inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis.
Curcumin works on a molecular level; that is, it gets right to the source of problems in affected tissues and works on a deep level. It’s poorly absorbed in the body and needs to be taken along with piperine, an extract of black pepper.
The highest-rated curcumin supplement on Amazon is:
- High potency turmeric with 1500 milligrams of curcumin and 10 milligrams of piperine compound, which helps tissues absorb curcumin for the maximum health benefit
- Vegan, free of soy, gluten, eggs, wheat or sugar
- Highly purified
- Free of all contaminants and free of heavy metals
People with RA tend to have chronically low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D controls the levels of calcium and phosphate in the body. Although the body can manufacture vitamin D from exposure to sunlight, the months from September through March in the northern hemisphere don’t have enough sunlight for the body to produce its own, and people with RA seem to have trouble synthesizing it.
Fortunately, vitamin D3 supplements are available that can remedy the situation. Vitamin D:
- Is consistently low in people with severe RA symptoms
- Reduces inflammation
- May relieve depression associated with a vitamin D deficiency
- Regulates the amount and use of calcium and phosphorus in the body
- Is essential for healthy teeth, skin, and bones
- Is depleted in most forms of arthritis