Rheumatoid arthritis… Your rheumatologist diagnosed you with rheumatoid arthritis and you have a lot questions. What’s rheumatoid arthritis? Can I get rid of it or will I live with this disease for the rest of my life? What should I expect? How do I fight it? This week I’ll present to you Part 1 of a Guide to living with rheumatoid arthritis. I’m going to present this as a three-part series. Part 1 will cover the basics: what is rheumatoid arthritis, the cause, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, etc. In Part 2 I’ll cover prognosis, what to expect, diet and exercise. In Part 3, I’ll be covering the financial side of rheumatoid arthritis: How to get access to medications and how to deal with insurance companies.
I hope you find this information useful. Be strong, be brave, and know that you’re not alone.
What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation throughout the body but mainly affect joints. Without treatment, rheumatoid arthritis can eventually lead to permanent joint destruction. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system loses “tolerance to self”. What this means is that the immune system can no longer distinguish between healthy cells and cells that don’t belong like bacteria or cancerous cells.
According to the CDC, about 1% of people living in the US suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. It tends to occur 2-3 times more often in women and tends to start in your sixties but it can start at any age. 
Some common signs and symptoms include:
- Pain and swelling in the joints. Particularly small joints like the knuckles, wrists, and toes.
- Morning stiffness that lasts more than one hours
- Having difficulty opening jars. Weakness in the hands.
- Fatigue, fevers, unintentional weight loss.
What causes rheumatoid arthritis?
We’re actually unsure. We do know that in certain cases there is a genetic link. People that have a certain HLA class II genotype (shared epitope) tend to get rheumatoid arthritis more often. Especially, if they smoke cigarettes. Moreover, we know that rheumatoid arthritis tends to run in families. However, most cases of RA happen spontaneously and not everyone who has a genetic risk factor develops RA.
There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to fully understand what causes rheumatoid arthritis. Like most autoimmune diseases, our best guess is that people who have RA probably were born with some sort of genetic predisposition for the disease. Then they get exposed to something in the environment like a virus, trauma, stress, hormonal change, which then triggers the disease to come online.
What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?
Usually rheumatoid arthritis presents with pain, swelling, and prolonged stiffness involving small joints, like the ones in your hands or feet. When I mean prolonged, I mean more than one hour. But RA can present in many ways. These can be divided into typical (90% of cases) and atypical presentations (10% of cases).
Insidious (55% – 65%): People develop pain, swelling, and prolonged stiffness mainly involving small joints like the toes and knuckles. This progressively worsens over months.
Subacute (15% – 20%): Again small joints are painful, swollen, and stiff but the this develops over weeks. Usually people experience some fatigue.
Acute (10%): Joints suddenly become swollen and tender over days. Some people have a fever, drenching night sweats, and sometimes can lose weight without trying.
Atypical (10% of cases)
Palindromic pattern: This type of presentation isn’t technically considered rheumatoid arthritis. It’s just that 33% to 50% of people with this type of presentation progress to full-blown rheumatoid arthritis. Typically, one joint is involved. It becomes tender and swollen for a few days then gets better on its own. Then a few weeks to a few months later it happens again. The flare can happen in the same joint but not necessarily. Treatment with hydroxychloroquine can decrease the risk of developing full-blown rheumatoid arthritis, so it’s important to start treatment as this stage.
Insidious onset of the elderly: As the name suggests this type of presentation occurs in the elderly, so people aged greater than 65 years. People experience extreme pain and stiffness shoulders and the hips. Sometimes you can see whole hand or foot swelling. Sometimes it’s very difficult to differentiate from polymyalgia rheumatica or remitting seronegative symmetrical synovitis with pitting edema (RS3PE). People with polymyalgia rheumatica and RS3PE typically do NOT have any positive antibodies.
Rheumatoid nodulosis: Rheumatoid arthritis can cause nodules and bone cysts on radiographs. Usually people also have joint pain and swelling but sometimes all they have are nodules.
Arthritis robustus: This is rather rare. I’ve only seen it once. It typically occurs in men. Essentially the person develops horrible rheumatoid arthritis hand deformities but experiences little or no pain. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s possible!
By James Heilman, MD (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?
The diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, contrary to popular belief, is primarily a clinical diagnosis. Having a positive antibodies like a rheumatoid factor (RF) does not necessarily mean that you have rheumatoid arthritis because MANY conditions can have a positive rheumatoid factor. Some of these include:
Rheumatoid arthritis, mixed cryoglobulinemia types II and III, sarcoidosis, and other autoimmune diseases like Sjogren’s syndrome. Other non-rheumatology diseases that can cause someone to have a positive rheumatoid factor include infections most notably hepatitis C, tuberculosis, syphilis, HIV, and endocarditis. People suffering from cancer and people with chronic pulmonary and liver diseases, can also have a positive rheumatoid factor.
It’s also important to mention that about 5 – 25% of people aged 60 years and older have a positive rheumatoid factor without any underlying causative disease.
This is why my job as a rheumatologist is so interesting 🙂
The American College of Rheumatology classification criteria for rheumatoid arthritis is as follows:
The 2010 American College of Rheumatology/European League Against Rheumatism classification criteria for rheumatoid arthritis
Who to test?
- People that have at least 1 joint with definite swelling.
- And the swelling cannot be better explained by another disease.
Classification criteria for RA (a score of ≥ 6/10 is needed for someone to have definite RA)
1 large joint
2 – 10 large joints
1 – 3 small joints
4 – 10 small joints
> 10 joints (at least one small joint)
Negative RF and negative CCP antibodies
Low positive RF or low positive CCP antibodies *
High-positive RF or high positive CCP antibodies #
Normal CRP and normal ESR
Abnormal CRP or abnormal ESR
|D||Duration of symptoms
< 6 weeks
≥ 6 weeks
* Low positive antibodies means any value that is above normal but less than 3 standard deviations above the upper limit of normal.
# High positive antibodies means any value that is 3 standard deviations above the upper limit of normal.
It’s important to note that these criteria were NOT meant for clinical practice but rather, were really meant for research trials. Sometimes, rheumatologists do deviate. Other conditions should be ruled out and let’s face it, not everyone fits perfectly into the mold. The criteria also does not account for musculoskeletal ultrasound testing. This imaging test can detect very subtle inflammation of a joint.
Positive antibodies without RA
Now sometimes the workup is completely negative including x-rays. This is not uncommon. It can mean many things. It could mean that the rheumatoid factor is not clinically significant. 5–25% of the population can have a positive rheumatoid factor without any underlying condition or any symptoms. Typically the rheumatoid factor levels are low. It could also mean that you will develop rheumatoid arthritis in the future. Studies have shown that antibodies associated with rheumatoid arthritis can be present over a decade before onset of clinical disease. Unfortunately, we don’t have the tools to precisely determine who will convert and who will not. In this situation, your rheumatologist can help you watch for any change in your condition.
How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?
We treat rheumatoid arthritis with medications called disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs). These medications slow down or stop the natural progression of rheumatoid arthritis.
Except for a few special situations, EVERYONE should with rheumatoid arthritis should be treated with a DMARD as soon as possible because permanent joint damage can happen in as little as 3 months after symptoms start.
The following are the medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis in the United States. It’s important to work closely with your rheumatologist because they all have possible risks and what may be good for your neighbor may not be safe for you.
I’ve broken them down into conventional DMARDs, biologic DMARDs, and pipeline medications that have not been approved as of yet.
- Etanercept, TNF inhibitor
- Adalimumab, TNF inhibitor
- Golimumab, TNF inhibitor
- Certolizumab pegol, TNF inhibitor
- Infliximab, TNF inhibitor
- Abatacept, Co-stimulation inhibitor
- Tocilizumab, IL-6 inhibitor
- Sarilumab, IL-6 inhibitor
- Tofacitinib – JAK inhibitor
- Rituximab – B cell depletion
- ABT 494, a new JAK inhibitor
- Baricitinib, another JAK inhibitor
- Sirukumab, another IL-6 inhibitor
It’s also important to note that we are starting to see biosimilar medications in the States. These are medications that are sort of copied from existing biologic medications. They are NOT generic medications. The problem with biosimilars is that because of their complexity, it literally is impossible to exactly copy a biologic medication. If you want to learn more about biosimilar medications, please check this article.
If you’re interested in supplementing, there is some research that suggests high dose turmeric/curcuma and high dose fish oil/omega-3 fatty acids may also be helpful. However, supplementation should be used in combination with FDA approved medications that I listed above.
Is there a cure for rheumatoid arthritis?
I honestly wish I had better news for you. Unfortunately there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment primarily focuses on arresting the natural progression of the disease with the use of disease modifying anti-rheumatic agents (DMARDs). Conventional DMARDs such as methotrexate, leflunomide, sulfasalazine, and hydroxychloroquine, modulate the immune system to decrease rheumatoid arthritis activity. Biologic medications like etanercept use a targeted approach, i.e., suppress a specific cytokine.
The goal of treatment is to put rheumatoid arthritis into remission and decrease the frequency of flares.
This may seem very pessimistic, but recent advances have really improved the prognosis of people living with rheumatoid arthritis.
Nevertheless, DMARDs do not cure rheumatoid arthritis.
How do we win the war against rheumatoid arthritis? Before we can win the war and find a cure, we need to know exactly what causes rheumatoid arthritis in the first place and we need to understand its exact pathophysiology. Believe it or not, despite all our advances, we still cannot answer these two questions. Don’t despair, researchers are actively trying to answer these questions.
Can rheumatoid arthritis become fatal?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic autoimmune mediated disease that primarily affect the joints. Note the primarily bit. It can affect a host of different organs including the eyes, lungs, heart, skin, and bone marrow to name a few.
Untreated or poorly controlled rheumatoid arthritis can cause serious conditions such as interstitial lung disease (i.e., inflammation of the lungs), pericarditis (i.e., inflammation of the “sac” surrounding the heart), as well as something called Felty’s syndrome (i.e., a hematologic condition that can cause white cells to dramatically decrease and causes the spleen to enlarge). These severe manifestations of rheumatoid arthritis that can lead to death are hardly ever seen anymore mainly because we have many highly effective medications called disease modifying anti-rheumatic medications (DMARDs). These medications have completely changed people’s prognosis.
Cardiovascular disease and infection
The most common cause of death in people with rheumatoid arthritis these days includes cardiovascular disease and infection – primarily from medications.
Rheumatoid arthritis increases cardiovascular risk via the interplay of inflammation and lipid metabolism. Studies have shown that people who receive treatment with methotrexate and or tumor necrosis factor inhibitors reduce their cardiovascular risk. A British study also demonstrated that cardiovascular was not increased regardless of the choice of DMARD provided that rheumatoid arthritis was well controlled.
Infection remains an ever-present problem in the world of rheumatology. To treat autoimmunity you need to suppress the immune system. Not too much, not too little, but just right. In some cases this has the unfortunate result in causing serious infections that can lead to death in extreme cases.
Rheumatoid arthritis can become fatal in many other ways, however, for the most part it is medication induced – although the pharmaceutical companies don’t really want you to know that. Just read a package insert. They’re terrifying.
However, I’ve been talking about rheumatoid arthritis fatalities. Untreated or undertreated rheumatoid arthritis is HIGHLY debilitating leading to a significant drop in your quality of life. Early treatment with a DMARD is the best way to improve your odds. You have to fight fire with fire!
Can I stop my medications if I’m feeling better?
No. Rheumatoid arthritis is a life-long disease. If you’re feeling better, great! However, it’s probably your medications that are keeping you that way. If you stop your medications the rheumatoid arthritis will come back. Maybe not now but soon. Rheumatoid arthritis subsides spontaneously in a VERY small subset of people.
If your medication is making you feel sick, talk to your rheumatologist. They’re there to make you feel better and they want to find the perfect treatment plan tailored for you.
Do not stop your medications without consulting your rheumatologist.
We’ve covered a lot of material today and there’s a lot more coming your way! Stay tuned for Part 2. I’ll be covering topics such as what to expect, what to eat, how to exercise, and strategies on how to reduce stress. Please leave your comments below.
 Horton SC, et al. Ultrasound-detectable grey scale synovitis predicts future fulfilment of the 2010 ACR/EULAR RA classification criteria in patients with new-onset undifferentiated arthritis. RMD Open. 2017 Mar 30;3(1):e000394. doi: 10.1136/rmdopen-2016-000394. eCollection 2017.
 Brink M, et al. Rheumatoid factor isotypes in relation to antibodies against citrullinated peptides and carbamylated proteins before the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Res Ther. 2016 Feb 9;18:43. doi: 10.1186/s13075-016-0940-2.
 Ramadan G Al-Kahtani MA, El-Sayed WM. Anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties of Curcuma longa (turmeric) versus Zingiber officiale (ginger) rhizomes in rat adjuvant-induced arthritis. Inflammation. 2011 Aug;34(4):291-301. doi: 10.1007/s10753-010-9278-0.
This information is offered to educate the general public. The information posted on this website does not replace professional medical advice, but for general information purposes only. There is no Doctor – Patient relationship established. We strongly advised you to speak with your medical professional if you have questions concerning your symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.