Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means the immune system - which is there to protect your body and fight infection — gets discombobulated and starts attacking your own tissue.
What RA Does To Your Body
RA causes inflammation in and around the joints, which shows itself as swelling, pain, tenderness, stiffness and redness.
The most common flare ups are in the small joints of the hands, wrists and feet.
It can also attack organs, with symptoms like dry eyes and mouth, chest pain and shortness of breath, low red and white blood cell counts, and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Nine out of 10 people with rheumatoid arthritis will develop problems with their feet or ankles, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
The inflammation most often impacts the toes and front of the feet first, progressing into the back of the feet and then the ankles. RA may also cause patients to develop painful conditions like bunions, corns, hammertoe, thick skin on the bottom of the forefoot, pain in the sole or ball of the foot and flat feet.
The inflammation and symptoms often come and go, with the periods between them lasting anywhere from a few weeks to a few years.
But it typically worsens with each subsequent inflammation, and can lead to the permanent destruction of the cartilage, bone and ligaments.
Visible deformity can result before the symptoms are even that severe. So it’s important to seek treatment immediately.
Doctors don’t know yet what causes RA, but it has long been suspected that there’s a hereditary link that might predispose certain people.
RA is also more common among smokers, which is yet one more reason to quit smoking (as if cancer wasn’t scary enough!)
Despite its reputation for being a disease of the elderly, RA can flare up at any age. It usually rears its ugly head between ages 40-60, but can even affect kids (juvenile rheumatoid arthritis), which might begin to limp, be irritable, cry a lot or lose their appetite. Also, women are more likely to develop RA than men.
There isn’t one simple test that we can use to diagnose RA.
Instead, we look at the big picture including overall symptoms, history, blood work and sometimes X-rays for a diagnosis. After the diagnosis, we work with a patient’s rheumatologist (an arthritis specialist) to reduce inflammation, alleviate discomfort and prevent further damage to the joints in the foot.
An early diagnosis and treatment program can make a huge difference in the long-term progression of this disease, so it’s best to see a doctor as soon as you begin showing symptoms. Treatment options depend on several factors like which joints are involved, how far the disease has progressed, other symptoms like bunions and flat feet, your age, general health, activity level and your daily lifestyle.
It usually involves some combination of medications, orthotics, rest, special exercises to strengthen the affected joints, protecting the joints, and rest. In more severe cases involving disfigurement, surgery might be necessary.