Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints and there are over a hundred types of the condition. If you’re like most folks, you think of arthritis as a disease that affects mostly older people. That is true to some extent with osteoarthritis, where the cartilage that cushions the joints gets worn down by usage.

Rheumatoid arthritis or RA affects older people too, however, it also strikes children and young adults. Researchers believe the condition is a kind of autoimmune disorder.

Rheumatoid arthritis causes pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints. It happens in a symmetrical pattern, meaning if the right ankle is affected the left ankle will be involved too.

The disease, which affects close to one and a half million people in the U.S., most often attacks the wrist joints and the fingers. We need to remember it is a systemic disease that affects other parts of the body besides the joints. It can cause fatigue, anemia, cardiovascular difficulties, eye trouble and problems with various organs.

We don’t understand well the causes the disease; but it seems to happen when the immune system regards the body’s tissue as foreign and attacks it. We do know that rheumatoid arthritis occurs much more frequently in women than in men.

If you have joint pain, swelling, stiffness, fatigue and muscle pain you may have Rheumatoid Arthritis. Permanent joint damage can get underway within one to 2 years so if you think you might have RA you should see your doctor sooner rather than later.

The Physician will examine you and ask a lot of questions and then you will probably get some blood tests. There is no one standard test, but you might get tested for anemia and inflammation markers (CRP) and an antibody called rheumatoid factor.

There is no cure for RA right now, but if you are diagnosed with RA you will want get aggressive treatment to manage your condition as soon as possible so you can prevent permanent joint damage. Your doctor will discuss treatment options that might include exercise, physical therapy and medication.

Exercise can help by easing pain and stiffness, giving you more energy and helping to keep your weight down.

Among the drugs your doctor may recommend are DMARDs, or disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs that can “turn down the volume” on your immune system. DMARDs also include different forms of biologics. Biologics are a class of drugs which act on the immune system and have shown promise in treating moderate to severe RA.

All forms of DMARDS require careful monitoring because of risks of some serious side effects–something that you should discuss with your physician before using them.