Rheumatoid Arthritis: Symptoms, causes and treatments

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects 456,000 Australians or 1.9% of the population. It is one of the main types of arthritis that can cause people significant pain, deformity and disability if left untreated.

Early diagnosis is key to effectively managing RA, so knowing what signs and symptoms to look out for in the early stages can be helpful to accessing appropriate treatments earlier.

With the right healthcare professionals guiding you, it is possible to learn how to manage your pain, improve your function and live an active, fulfilling life despite your RA.

What is it?

RA is an inflammatory type of arthritis. It can affect anyone at any stage of their life, but is more common after middle age, in females, and in those with a family history of the condition.

What causes it?

RA occurs when the body’s immune system starts mistakenly attacking its own joint linings.

Unlike osteoarthritis, it often affects multiple joints on both sides of the body, starting in the smaller joints of the hands or feet and progressing to larger joints like the knees and hips. Sometimes, it can also affect parts the spine, most commonly the neck.

Due to widespread inflammation, RA can cause:

  • Joint pain, swelling, redness and/or deformity
  • Morning joint stiffness > 30 min
  • A low grade fever
  • Eye/mouth/skin dryness and irritation
  • Circulatory and breathing problems

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor or physiotherapist may suspect RA based on your medical history and physical examination results. In this case, you will be referred to a doctor who specialises in arthritis (rheumatologist) to undergo further examination and diagnostic tests (e.g. blood tests and x-rays).

How is it treated?

Although there is currently no cure for RA, the good news is that it can be effectively managed through a combination of treatments. These include certain medication, exercise and a healthy lifestyle approach.

Can I exercise with it?

You definitely can! We understand it can be hard to start or continue exercising when your joints are stiff and painful. However, exercise has been shown time and time again to be an effective component of RA treatment, as it not only addresses the condition itself, but helps to prevent secondary problems such as weight gain, muscle loss and fatigue.

This is where your physiotherapist or exercise physiologist comes in! We can work with you to design an exercise program that suits your current needs, abilities and goals. Your program will focus on what you enjoy and benefit from the most – walking, jogging, biking, swimming, yoga, Pilates, weight training, tai chi, dancing…the options are endless! Best of all, if you need more support in the beginning, we can supervise you in a safe and supportive environment to help you become more confident with your exercises and ensure you are making gradual progress towards your goals.

Do not let your RA define you! Seek help if you have had problems with persistent joint pain and swelling. Get diagnosed early. Your rheumatologist, GP and physiotherapist/exercise physiologist will guide you the rest of the way.

If you are suspecting or have been diagnosed with RA and need specific advice, feel free to contact our team to book in for a free initial assessment with one of our physiotherapists or exercise physiologist. Alternatively, if you have a general question that you would like answered, do leave it in the comments box below and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can!

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