What is Rheumatoid Arthritis? The experts weigh in.

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis? The experts weigh in.Rheumatoid Arthritis: An elderly woman's hands who is suffering from RA. (Photo: Shutterstock/ Chaowalit Seeneha)

Known as a chronic illness which mostly affects the elderly, experts have warned that Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) can affect anyone regardless of their age. They have advised  young people who have a genetic predisposition to RA to be aware of certain lifestyle choices.

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According to Rheumatologist Dr Ingrid Louw, Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease wherein the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues. Some patients experience the effects of joint damage as early as three months after the onset of RA symptoms, while others develop joint damage within two years.

Louw was speaking during a webinar organised by Pfizer, on the burden of Rheumatoid Arthritis in South Africa. Louw said RA is commonly diagnosed in people aged between 40 and 60. But she also admitted that an increasing number of younger people are being diagnosed with the condition.

“We are seeing quite a lot of portion of younger people and the younger you are, the more concerned we are, because you are very active, you want to stay active and you want to have a normal quality of life. So it is very important to get the disease under control as quickly as possible. But seeing young people with RA is not exceptional, we see that all the time,” she explained.

Rheumatoid Arthritis: What are some of the risks?

“There are certain risk factors that can cause the disease, of which genetic association is the most important one. If you have an immediate family member with Rheumatoid Arthritis, you have a three-time higher possibility of developing RA. And if you have a distant relative, you have two times high likelihood of developing Rheumatoid arthritis as opposed to the general population,” Louw explained.

Young people who have a genetic predisposition to RA were urged to be mindful of their lifestyle choices.

“If you have a genetic predisposition, you are probably not going to dodge this disease but certainly, you need to not do anything to make your chances of developing the disease or having an aggressive disease by smoking. RA affects the small joints of the hand, wrist, and feet before affecting larger joints and if left untreated can cause deformity and disability,” said Louw.

Lessening the severity of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Another Rheumatologist, Dr Elsa Van Duuren, also speaking during the webinar, said that the treatment of RA is ideally done as soon as possible to try and get the condition into remission. This is done to decrease the progression of joint disease, as it can cause progressive damage to joints resulting in loss of function, which in many patients, will mean that they are unable to fulfill work obligations or cope with activities at home.

“Adequate treatment is also important to try to prevent or lessen the severity of co-morbidities, particularly cardiovascular disease, which is still a major cause of mortality in these patients. Apart from treating the rheumatoid disease, the patient should ideally be treated by a multidisciplinary team to address many other associations of this disease which range from psychological help with anxiety and depression, to guidance with physical therapy by physiotherapists or biokineticists and help with activities of daily living occupational therapists,” explained Van Vuuren.

Medical Director for Pfizer South Africa, Dr Bha Ndungane-Tlakula said the multinational pharmaceutical company wants to work closely with the healthcare community in South Africa to ensure early diagnoses of RA.

“RA patients have been reported to experience losses in function both at work and socially posing considerable costs to quality of life and the economy due to sick leave and work-related disability. We want to work closely with the healthcare community to ensure earlier diagnosis, increased patient access and medication adherence,” said Ndungane-Tlakula. – Health-e News