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When people hear the word "arthritis", they frequently think of the kind of arthritis that Grandpa had that he would rub liniment on and complain of "feelin' the rain" in. That type of arthritis is osteoarthritis and can affect people's joints as they age, due to the normal wear and tear of moving. Most people think of this as something that one endures as one gets older.

However, there is a type of arthritis that can affect anyone--a toddler, a college student or a young parent--it's called rheumatoid arthritis, and it can cripple anyone, regardless of age, sex or race. Let's take a look at this disease.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic, chronic disease that causes the body's immune system to become dysfunctional. In a healthy person, the immune system is a wonder! It recognizes when "invader" cells (like viruses or bacteria) enter the body, and it creates specific antibodies to destroy them. In an autoimmune disease like RA, the immune system goes haywire, and starts to create antibodies to the body's own cells. The cause for this dysfunction is unknown, but the effects of it are all too palpable.

These rogue antibodies created by the immune system can attack any organ or system in the body, but in RA, they attack the joints and the tissues surrounding them, causing inflammation and damaging or destroying the cells that make up the joints. This disease process is evidenced by severe pain in the affected joints, swelling, loss of mobility and stiffness, especially in the morning upon awakening. RA can affect any joint in the body, but usually affects the hands, wrists, fingers, knees and hips.

Since RA is an autoimmune disease, and not the result of wear-and-tear on bones and joints as one ages, it can affect anyone of any age. In children, it's called Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and usually affects children below the age of 16. After that, it usually strikes adults in their 30s or 40s or up, but no one is immune to the effects of the illness. Over 2 million Americans suffer from RA, but one of the interesting statistics is that of those 2 million, 1.5 million are women, and only 600,000 are men! The role of hormones in RA has not been established yet, but research continues.

Treatment for RA is varied, but one of the first defenses is medicinal. The medications usually used to treat RA are salicylates like aspirin, NSAIDS like ibuprofen, corticosteroids like prednisone, and gold compounds. Another type of treatment involves intra-articular injections (into the affected joints) of steroids for acute inflammation. Many times, physical therapy, massage, and gentle stretching exercises will help maintain mobility and even reduce some pain and stiffness. A rheumatologist (who specializes in rheumatoid illnesses) should be seen to manage the disease process, and to recommend any therapies or treatments.

No matter your age, it's important to remember that RA, although serious and potentially debilitating, does not have to be a sentence of exile from life. New therapies and medications are constantly being made available to the public, there are many support groups available to people that offer information and support both online and in communities around the country and perhaps best of all, better understanding of disabilities has encouraged communities, businesses and schools to make public areas and facilities easier for people with mobility problems to get around and enjoy life! If you have RA, please remember that you're not alone, and that there are services and people who are really there for you!