Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
is a long-lasting autoimmune disorder that primarily affects joints. It typically results in warm, swollen, and painful joints. Pain and stiffness often worsen following rest. Most commonly, the wrist and hands are involved, with the same joints typically involved on both sides of the body. The disease may also affect other parts of the body. This may result in a low red blood cell count, inflammation around the lungs, and inflammation around the heart. Fever and low energy may also be present.Often, symptoms come on gradually over weeks to months.
While the cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not clear, it is believed to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The underlying mechanism involves the body’s immune system attacking the joints. This results in inflammation and thickening of the joint capsule. It also affects the underlying bone and cartilage. The diagnosis is made mostly on the basis of a person’s signs and symptoms. X-rays and laboratory testing may support a diagnosis or exclude other diseases with similar symptoms.Other diseases that may present similarly include systemic lupus erythematosus, psoriatic arthritis, and fibromyalgia among others.
RA primarily affects joints, but it also affects other organs in more than 15–25% of individuals.Arthritis of joints involves inflammation of the synovial membrane. Joints become swollen, tender and warm, and stiffness limits their movement. With time, multiple joints are affected (polyarthritis). Most commonly involved are the small joints of the hands, feet and cervical spine, but larger joints like the shoulder and knee can also be involved. Synovitis can lead to tethering of tissue with loss of movement and erosion of the joint surface causing deformity and loss of function.
RA typically manifests with signs of inflammation, with the affected joints being swollen, warm, painful and stiff, particularly early in the morning on waking or following prolonged inactivity. Increased stiffness early in the morning is often a prominent feature of the disease and typically lasts for more than an hour. Gentle movements may relieve symptoms in early stages of the disease. These signs help distinguish rheumatoid from non-inflammatory problems of the joints, often referred to as osteoarthritis. In arthritis of non-inflammatory causes, signs of inflammation and early morning stiffness are less prominent with stiffness typically less than one hour, and movements induce pain caused by mechanical arthritis. The pain associated with RA is induced at the site of inflammation and classified as nociceptive as opposed to neuropathic. The joints are often affected in a fairly symmetrical fashion, although this is not specific, and the initial presentation may be asymmetrical.
As the pathology progresses the inflammatory activity leads to tendon tethering and erosion and destruction of the joint surface, which impairs range of movement and leads to deformity. The fingers may suffer from almost any deformity depending on which joints are most involved. Specific deformities, which also occur in osteoarthritis, include ulnar deviation, boutonniere deformity (also “button hole deformity”, flexion of proximal interphalangeal joint and extension of distal interphalangeal joint), swan neck deformity (hyperextension at proximal interphalangeal joint and flexion at distal interphalangeal joint) and “Z-thumb.” “Z-thumb” or “Z-deformity” consists of hyperextension of the interphalangeal joint, fixed flexion and subluxation of the metacarpophalangeal joint and gives a “Z” appearance to the thumb. The hammer toe deformity may be seen. In the worst case, joints are known as arthritis mutilans due to the mutilating nature of the deformities. “Spindling of fingers” of hand occurs due to swelling of the PIP but not DIP joints. “Piano key movement” of the ulnar styloid occurs due to inflammation around the ulnar styloid and tenosynovitis of extensor carpi ulnaris.
The rheumatoid nodule, which is sometimes in the skin, is the most common non joint feature. They occur in 30% of people. It is a type of inflammatory reaction known to pathologists as a “necrotizing granuloma”. The initial pathologic process in nodule formation is unknown but may be essentially the same as the synovitis, since similar structural features occur in both. The nodule has a central area of fibrinoid necrosis that may be fissured and which corresponds to the fibrin-rich necrotic material found in and around an affected synovial space. Surrounding the necrosis is a layer of palisading macrophages and fibroblasts, corresponding to the intimal layer in synovium and a cuff of connective tissue containing clusters of lymphocytes and plasma cells, corresponding to the subintimal zone in synovitis. The typical rheumatoid nodule may be a few millimetres to a few centimetres in diameter and is usually found over bony prominences, such as the elbow, the heel, the knuckles, or other areas that sustain repeated mechanical stress. Nodules are associated with a positive RF (rheumatoid factor) titer and severe erosive arthritis. Rarely, these can occur in internal organs or at diverse sites on the body..
Several forms of vasculitis occur in RA. A benign form occurs as microinfarcts around the nailfolds. More severe forms include livedo reticularis, which is a network (reticulum) of erythematous to purplish discoloration of the skin caused by the presence of an obliterative cutaneous capillaropathy..
Other, rather rare, skin associated symptoms include pyoderma gangrenosum, Sweet’s syndrome, drug reactions, erythema nodosum, lobe panniculitis, atrophy of finger skin, palmar erythema, diffuse thinning (rice paper skin), and skin fragility (often worsened by corticosteroid use)..
Fibrosis of the lungs is a recognized response to rheumatoid disease. It is also a rare but well recognized consequence of therapy (for example with methotrexate and leflunomide). Caplan’s syndrome describes lung nodules in individuals with RA and additional exposure to coal dust. Pleural effusions are also associated with RA. Another complication of RA is Rheumatoid Lung Disease. It is estimated that about one quarter of Americans with RA develop Rheumatoid Lung Disease.
Renal amyloidosis can occur as a consequence of chronic inflammation. RA may affect the kidney glomerulus directly through a vasculopathy or a mesangial infiltrate but this is less well documented (though this is not surprising, considering immune complex-mediated hypersensitivities are known for pathogenic deposition of immune complexes in organs where blood is filtered at high pressure to form other fluids, such as urine and synovial fluid. Treatment with penicillamine and gold salts are recognized causes of membranous nephropathy.
People with RA are more prone to atherosclerosis, and risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack) and stroke is markedly increased. Other possible complications that may arise include: pericarditis, endocarditis, left ventricular failure, valvulitis and fibrosis.Many people with RA do not experience the same chest pain that others feel when they have angina or myocardial infarction. To reduce cardiovascular risk, it is crucial to maintain optimal control of the inflammation caused by RA (which may be involved in causing the cardiovascular risk), and to use exercise and medications appropriately to reduce other cardiovascular risk factors such as blood lipids and blood pressure. Doctors who treat people with RA should be sensitive to cardiovascular risk when prescribing anti-inflammatory medications, and may want to consider prescribing routine use of low doses of aspirin if the gastrointestinal effects are tolerable.
The eye can be directly affected in the form of episcleritis or scleritis. Scleritis when severe can very rarely progress to perforating scleromalacia. Rather more common is the indirect effect of keratoconjunctivitis sicca, which is a dryness of eyes and mouth caused by lymphocyte infiltration of lacrimal and salivary glands. When severe, dryness of the cornea can lead to keratitis and loss of vision. Preventive treatment of severe dryness with measures such as nasolacrimal duct blockage is important.
Liver problems in people with rheumatoid arthritis may be due to the underlying disease process or as a result of the medications used to treat the disease. A coexisting autoimmune liver disease, such as primary biliary cirrhosis or autoimmune hepatitis may also cause problems.
Anemia is by far the most common abnormality of the blood cells which can be caused by a variety of mechanisms. The chronic inflammation caused by RA leads to raised hepcidin levels, leading to anemia of chronic disease where iron is poorly absorbed and also sequestered into macrophages. RA may also cause a warm autoimmune hemolytic anemia. The red cells are of normal size and colour (normocytic and normochromic). A low white blood cell count usually only occurs in people with Felty’s syndrome with an enlarged liver and spleen. The mechanism of neutropenia is complex. An increased platelet count occurs when inflammation is uncontrolled.
Peripheral neuropathy and mononeuritis multiplex may occur. The most common problem is carpal tunnel syndrome caused by compression of the median nerve by swelling around the wrist. Atlanto-axial subluxation can occur, owing to erosion of the odontoid process and/or transverse ligaments in the cervical spine’s connection to the skull. Such an erosion (>3mm) can give rise to vertebrae slipping over one another and compressing the spinal cord. Clumsiness is initially experienced, but without due care this can progress to quadriplegia.
Constitutional symptoms including fatigue, low grade fever, malaise, morning stiffness, loss of appetite and loss of weight are common systemic manifestations seen in people with active RA.
Local osteoporosis occurs in RA around inflamed joints. It is postulated to be partially caused by inflammatory cytokines. More general osteoporosis is probably contributed to by immobility, systemic cytokine effects, local cytokine release in bone marrow and corticosteroid therapy.
X-rays of the hands and feet are generally performed in people with many joints affected. In RA, there may be no changes in the early stages of the disease, or the x-ray may demonstrate juxta-articular osteopenia, soft tissue swelling and loss of joint space. As the disease advances, there may be bony erosions and subluxation. X-rays of other joints may be taken if symptoms of pain or swelling occur in those joints.
Other medical imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound are also used in RA.
There have been technical advances in ultrasonography. High-frequency transducers (10 MHz or higher) have improved the spatial resolution of ultrasound images; these images can depict 20% more erosions than conventional radiography. Also, color Doppler and power Doppler ultrasound, which show vascular signals of active synovitis depending on the degree of inflammation, are useful in assessing synovial inflammation. This is important, since in the early stages of RA, the synovium is primarily affected, and synovitis seems to be the best predictive marker of future joint damage.
When RA is clinically suspected, testing for the presence of rheumatoid factor (RF, a non-specific antibody) and (ACPAs) may be required. A negative RF does not rule out RA; rather, the arthritis is called seronegative. This is the case in about 15% of people with RA. During the first year of illness, rheumatoid factor is more likely to be negative with some individuals converting to seropositive status over time. RF is also seen in other illnesses, for example Sjögren’s syndrome, hepatitis C, systemic lupus erythematosus, chronic infections and in approximately 10% of the healthy population, therefore the test is not very specific.
Because of this low specificity, new serological tests have been developed, which test for the presence of the anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPAs) or anti-CCP. Like RF, these tests are positive in only a proportion (67%) of all RA cases, but are rarely positive if RA is not present, giving it a specificity of around 95%. As with RF, there is evidence for ACPAs being present in many cases even before onset of clinical disease.
The most common tests for ACPAs are the anti-CCP (cyclic citrullinated peptide) test and the Anti-MCV assay (antibodies against mutated citrullinated Vimentin). Recently a serological point-of-care test (POCT) for the early detection of RA has been developed. This assay combines the detection of rheumatoid factor and anti-MCV for diagnosis of RA and shows a sensitivity of 72% and specificity of 99.7%.
Also, several other blood tests are usually done to allow for other causes of arthritis, such as lupus erythematosus. The erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), C-reactive protein, full blood count, kidney function, liver enzymes and other immunological tests (e.g., antinuclear antibody/ANA) are all performed at this stage. Elevated ferritin levels can reveal hemochromatosis, a mimic of RA, or be a sign of Still’s disease, a seronegative, usually juvenile, variant of rheumatoid arthritis.[c
is a type of joint disease that results from breakdown of joint cartilage and underlying bone. The most common symptoms are joint pain and stiffness. Initially, symptoms may occur only following exercise, but over time may become constant. Other symptoms may include joint swelling, decreased range of motion, and when the back is affected weakness or numbness of the arms and legs. The most commonly involved joints are those near the ends of the fingers, at the base of the thumb, neck, lower back, knee, and hips. Joints on one side of the body are often more affected than those on the other. Usually the symptoms come on over years. It can affect work and normal daily activities. Unlike other types of arthritis, only the joints are typically affected.
Causes include previous joint injury, abnormal joint or limb development, and inherited factors. Risk is greater in those who are overweight, have one leg of a different length, and have jobs that result in high levels of joint stress. Osteoarthritis is believed to be caused by mechanical stress on the joint and low grade inflammatory processes.It develops as cartilage is lost and the underlying bone becomes affected. As pain may make it difficult to exercise, muscle loss may occur. Diagnosis is typically based on signs and symptoms, with medical imaging and other tests occasionally used to either support or rule out other problems. In contrast to rheumatoid arthritis, which is primarily an inflammatory condition, in OA, the joints do not typically become hot or red.
The main symptom is pain, causing loss of ability and often stiffness. “Pain” is generally described as a sharp ache or a burning sensation in the associated muscles and tendons, and is typically made worse by prolonged activity and relieved by rest. Stiffness is most common in the morning, and typically lasts less than thirty minutes after beginning daily activities, but may return after periods of inactivity. OA can cause a crackling noise (called “crepitus”) when the affected joint is moved or touched and people may experience muscle spasms and contractions in the tendons. Occasionally, the joints may also be filled with fluid. Some people report increased pain associated with cold temperature, high humidity, and/or a drop in barometric pressure, but studies have had mixed results.
OA commonly affects the hands, feet, spine, and the large weight-bearing joints, such as the hips and knees, although in theory, any joint in the body can be affected. As OA progresses, the affected joints appear larger, are stiff, painful and may swell, but usually feel better with gentle use but worse with excessive or prolonged use, thus distinguishing it from rheumatoid arthritis.
In smaller joints, such as at the fingers, hard bony enlargements, called Heberden’s nodes (on the distal interphalangeal joints) and/or Bouchard’s nodes (on the proximal interphalangeal joints), may form, and though they are not necessarily painful, they do limit the movement of the fingers significantly. OA at the toes leads to the formation of bunions, rendering them red or swollen. Some people notice these physical changes before they experience any pain, in part because the cartilage damage in OA is generally painless because cartilage is aneural.
OA is the most common cause of a joint effusion of the knee.
Diagnosis is made with reasonable certainty based on history and clinical examination. X-rays may confirm the diagnosis. The typical changes seen on X-ray include: joint space narrowing, subchondral sclerosis (increased bone formation around the joint), subchondral cyst formation, and osteophytes. Plain films may not correlate with the findings on physical examination or with the degree of pain. Usually other imaging techniques are not necessary to clinically diagnose OA.
In 1990, the American College of Rheumatology, using data from a multi-center study, developed a set of criteria for the diagnosis of hand OA based on hard tissue enlargement and swelling of certain joints. These criteria were found to be 92% sensitive and 98% specific for hand OA versus other entities such as rheumatoid arthritis and spondyloarthropathies.
Related pathologies whose names may be confused with OA include pseudo-arthrosis. This is derived from the Greek roots pseudo-, meaning “false”, and arthr-, meaning “joint”, together with the ending -osis used for disorders. Radiographic diagnosis results in diagnosis of a fracture within a joint, which is not to be confused with OA which is a degenerative pathology affecting a high incidence of distal phalangeal joints of female patients. A polished ivory-like appearance may also develop on the bones of the affected joints, reflecting a change called eburnati