Rheumatoid Arthritis in Women

close-up of a woman applying an anti-inflammatory cream to her wrist
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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition that can launch a full body attack as early as your 20s. It occurs when antibodies within the immune system attack the linings of the joints which causes pain and swelling and leads to limited mobility. Research has suggested that the number of women over 18 with rheumatoid arthritis has increased drastically in the past twenty years, with an estimated 1.5 million Americans diagnosed.

While experts are not sure why RA is on the rise, a vitamin D deficiency has been linked to a higher incidence of the autoimmune disorder. Another possible cause of the higher incidence in women could be due to a decrease in dosage of estrogen in current oral contraceptive medications. Smoking is a known risk factor for RA.

What to Look For

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are similar to other conditions like osteoarthritis (OA), the most common form of arthritis which worsens with age. Both RA and osteoarthritis cause stiff, achy joints that are most painful in the morning. In patients with osteoarthritis, the stiffness is worse with activity and usually goes away after 15-20 minutes. In patients with RA, however, the stiffness actually improves with activity and it usually lasts much longer, for a few hours at least. With RA the joints will be painful, red and warm. Usually, in OA, the hips and knees are affected while in RA, the hands and feet become painful and are often associated with a fever and flu-like symptoms.

The condition tends to flare up and then go through periods of remission where there are few or no symptoms.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If your pain and stiffness continue for more than 30 minutes in the morning and the joints are red and warm, talk to your doctor about seeing a rheumatologist. Rheumatologists specialize in connective tissue diseases including RA, and they can diagnose the autoimmune disease based on symptoms, the physical exam, and bloodwork.

X-rays, ultrasounds or MRIs may also be necessary in order to determine the extent of bone damage.

Early detection is important to manage rheumatoid arthritis. Permanent joint damage can occur if the condition is left untreated. Medications can slow the progression of the disease, and they allow for a better chance of remission. Over the counter ibuprofen may manage symptoms, but if this fails, prescription strength medication for pain relief can help. The doctor might also suggest a steroid such as prednisone to ease symptoms during a flare-up.

How to Prevent RA

In order to prevent the disease from progressing, powerful disease-modifying antirheumatic medications can be used to suppress the immune system. These drugs target the areas of the immune system that cause tissue damage in the joints to reduce pain and inflammation. Unfortunately, these medications can have serious side effects including liver damage, increased rate of infection, and a slightly higher risk of cancer.

Regular exercise is important in individuals with RA because it promotes mobility, decreases stress, and prevents weight gain.

During a flare-up, perform a gentle range of motion exercises and low-impact activities such as walking in order to strengthen the muscles. Consuming yogurt and other calcium-fortified foods will increase bone strength. Additionally, eating antioxidant-rich plant-based foods will help stave off inflammation.

Individuals that have family members with other autoimmune conditions, such as celiac disease and lupus, are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis as it is greatly influenced by genetics. While it is difficult to overcome genetic tendencies, there are ways to reduce the risk of RA. Smoking and obesity are two of the biggest risk factors that can trigger an autoimmune response. Exercising regularly, eating healthy meals and avoiding cigarettes can drastically reduce the chances of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

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