Rheumatoid arthritis: myths and truths about this condition

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a type of arthritis characterized by pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints.

It is estimated that it affects 1.5% of the world population, while in Latin America there are approximately 34 million people with permanent disabilities and 140 million with temporary disabilities due to rheumatic diseases. Despite this incidence, there are many doubts or erroneous beliefs about this disease. Here we review the most common myths about RA.

Myth 1: Joint pain is always arthritis.

TRUE: It is common to believe that all joint pain is definitely arthritis, but the truth is that there are other factors that may be causing this discomfort, for example:

  • Bursitis: is the swelling and irritation of a bursa, a kind of fluid-filled sac that acts as a cushion between the muscles, tendons and bones.
  • Muscle injuries or pain.
  • tendinitis: inflammation of the tendon, tissue that connects muscle to bone.

Myth 2: RA is the same as osteoarthritis

TRUE: Although they are often used as synonyms, osteoarthritis and RA are not the same. While RA occurs from injury or normal wear and tear on the joints with aging, RA occurs when the immune system attacks the lining of the joints, especially in the hands, wrists, and feet. It can also affect the heart, lungs, and eyes.

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This confusion is likely because some people with RA also have osteoarthritis.

Myth 3: There is only one type of arthritis

TRUE: Arthritis is often talked about as if it were a single condition, but this is not correct. In addition to RA and osteoarthritis, there are more than 100 rheumatic diseases and conditions, the most common types are:

  • Osteoarthritis: it is a wear of the joints that cover the smooth cartilage, it has long been considered a non-inflammatory form of arthritis, although some inflammatory cells present in this condition have now been recognized.
  • Drop: It is characterized by an accumulation of uric acid, which can form crystals in the joints, especially in the big toe, although it can also be found in the hands, wrists or knees. The crystals activate a temporary inflammatory response that can become chronic.
  • Psoriasic arthritis: May affect the knees, ankles, wrists, or fingers. It is estimated that approximately 30% of people with psoriasis (an autoimmune condition that causes raised patches of scaly skin) develop psoriatic arthritis.
  • Calcium pyrophosphate deposition disease (CPPD or pseudogout): In CPPD, calcium crystals are deposited in the joints, especially in the knee, wrist, shoulder, ankle, or elbow. Like the uric acid crystals in gout, these can cause the body to respond with inflammation, which can become chronic over time.

  • Why joints hurt and how to relieve it

Myth 4: Arthritis only develops in old age

TRUE: RA, like other joint conditions, is often associated with old age. However, experts explain that it can occur at any age, because it is an autoimmune disorder, which occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s tissues.

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Myth 5: Weather changes can make RA worse

TRUE: This is a widespread belief but not true. Although the weather does not cause or worsen RA, it can influence the general condition of the patient.

Specialists outline different explanations for this phenomenon. One of them is concentrated in the synovial fluid, a thick fluid found in the joints. It helps reduce friction between cartilage and other tissues in the joints to lubricate and cushion them during movement.

It is believed that during low temperatures the synovial fluid can be expected and thereby make the joints stiffer, thus causing the well-known pain.

Another explanation can be found in the blood. In the cold, blood flow often diverts away from extremities, such as the arms and legs, to concentrate on vital organs, such as the heart, in an effort to keep them warm. However, this takes heat away from the joints, making them more painful.

Myth 6: Only applying heat works to relieve RA pain

TRUE: That’s not true. While heat can help relieve pain and relax sore and tight muscles, the application of cold can also help, especially for its numbing effect and ability to reduce swelling.

Myth 7: RA cannot be prevented

TRUE: Certain factors can increase the risk of RA. Some of them are not modifiable, for example, sex (women are more likely than men), age (RA usually appears after middle age) or family history.

However, other factors can be modified and thereby help prevent RA. This is the case of smoking or being overweight. It is also recommended to maintain a healthy diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, oily fish, nuts, cereals and legumes.

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Myth 8: If you have RA you can’t exercise

TRUE: This is false. According to experts, exercise and RA should coexist. Scientific evidence shows that people with RA who engage in regular physical activity experience less pain, have more energy, and have a greater range of joint motion.

Just be sure to talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise regimen. This will help you prevent injuries and determine the best activities for you to do.

Myth 9: There are drugs, herbs or supplements that can cure RA

TRUE: As with other conditions with a high incidence in the population, in recent years countless products or natural remedies have been disseminated (mainly through the Internet) that claim to be effective in curing RA.

Experts claim that this is nothing more than a fraud, since although this condition can be controlled and treated, to date there is no cure.

Myth 10: There is no treatment for RA

TRUE: As reported by clinical studies, remission of RA symptoms is more likely when treatment is started early. Depending on the severity of the case, the doctor may recommend the use of medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids, conventional disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, or biological agents, as well as physical therapy.

In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary, for example to repair the tendon, fuse the joint, or replace the entire joint.

Sources consulted: US National Library of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Harvard Health Publishing, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, World Health Organization (WHO).

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