Do You Have a Family History of Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Approximately 1.3 million people in the United States suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes joint pain and stiffness. RA is a complex disorder, and its onset can be triggered by a viral infection, certain changes in hormone levels, emotional stress, or even physical trauma.
Although anyone can develop rheumatoid arthritis, you need to be specifically on the lookout for this condition if someone in your immediate family has been diagnosed. Here is the basic information you need to know if you think you have a family history of RA.
How Is Rheumatoid Arthritis Inherited?
Rheumatoid arthritis is not an inherited disease in the strictest sense. Your parent cannot directly pass RA down to you as they can pass down truly heritable conditions like sickle cell anemia or Huntington’s disease.
There is not a single gene that causes RA. Rather, a variety of genes increase your chances of developing RA. Still, not everyone with these genes develops RA, and not everyone with RA has these genes.
If your parent, sibling, or grandparent has RA, there is no guarantee that you will develop the condition. However, you do have a greater risk of RA than someone with no family history. One study found that people with a first-degree relative with RA was three times as likely to develop the disease as someone without a family history of the condition.
How Can You Control Your Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis?
You cannot change your genetic markers or family history. However, you can control many of the environmental factors that also impact your risk of RA. The following are key modifiable risk factors to focus on.
Being overweight increases your risk of RA, so make sure you get proper exercise and eat a healthy diet to keep your weight within a healthy range.
Physical and emotional stress can trigger the onset of RA. Use stress management techniques, such as meditation and yoga, to alleviate feelings of tension. Consider making a life change if your career and home life are overly stressful.
Minimize your exposure to air pollution by staying indoors on days when pollutant levels are high. Avoid living near factories and busy roads. Use a good-quality air filter in your home to keep your indoor air clean, too.
When Do Symptoms Typically Appear?
As someone with a family history or rheumatoid arthritis, you should be on the lookout for early symptoms. The earlier you notice and seek treatment for RA, the less damage the disease will do to your joints. RA can begin at any age, but patients usually start showing symptoms between the age of 30 and 60.
Sometimes, patients overlook the early signs of RA, assuming they will get better in time. The first symptom is often stiffness in one or several joints, accompanied by pain that worsens with movement. The stiffness and pain are barely noticeable at first, but progress over a period of several weeks or months. More rarely, a patient may experience a sudden onset of pain over a 24- to 48-hour period.
Often, the joints of the hands or feet are affected first. Sometimes, however, the shoulders, elbows, and knees are affected early on. Along with joint pain, early symptoms often include general fatigue, depression, and a low-grade fever. This is why, at first onset, RA is often mistaken for the flu.
How Is RA Treated Early On?
As rheumatoid arthritis persists, it can cause more permanent damage to joints, including symmetrical joint swelling, deformities of the hands and feet, and reduced range of motion. These effects can be minimized if RA is diagnosed and treated early.
For milder cases, your doctor may recommend a medication like Azulfidine or hydroxychloroquine, which have a low risk of side effects. For more moderate to severe medication, advanced drugs like methotrexate and leflunomide are often used. These medications reduce inflammation and slow the progression of joint damage.
How Is Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosed?
If you present to your doctor with joint pain and a history of RA, there are a few tests that may run to diagnose the condition:
- A blood test to detect an elevated white blood cell count or high levels of C-reactive protein
- A blood test to detect a reduced complete blood cell count
- X-rays and MRIs to examine the condition of joints
There is no single test for RA. Your doctor will make a diagnosis based on the overall results obtained from blood work, images, and other lab reports.
What Other Autoimmune Conditions Do You Need to Watch Out For?
Autoimmune diseases are all closely related, which means a family history of RA puts you at an increased risk for other autoimmune diseases, too. Specific conditions to watch out for include lupus, Crohn’s disease, and Sjogren’s syndrome. Developing one of these conditions does not mean you are no longer at risk for RA. Autoimmune diseases often present concurrently.
Even though rheumatoid arthritis is not an inherited condition, family history is a strong risk factor. If someone in your family has been diagnosed with RA, make sure you avoid other risk factors and keep an eye out for early symptoms. If you do develop joint pain or other worrisome symptoms, contact Southwest Florida Neurosurgical & Rehab Associates to schedule an appointment.