No one knows exactly was causes rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or how to prevent it. And there is no cure. This may be disheartening if you have rheumatoid arthritis. However, scientists are learning more about this condition and there are promising treatments available that can ease joint damage, avoid disability, and improve your quality of life.
What We Know About Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, lifelong condition that causes inflammation and pain. Scientists know that rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease—a type of disease in which your immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissues. There are many types of autoimmune diseases that target different parts of the body. In RA, your immune system targets your joints and sometimes other tissue can be affected. If you have RA, your symptoms may be constant or there may be times when your joint pain and inflammation are mild.
There are many things you can do to influence the course of RA—take your medicine as directed, exercise regularly, and make any necessary lifestyle changes. People who are active in their RA care and follow their treatment plan tend to have a better quality of life, less pain, and fewer doctor visits (Source: NIH).
In Search of a Cure
Research over the last few years has changed the way doctors treat RA. Early treatment offers the best chance of preventing joint destruction and disability from RA. In particular, early treatment with biologic response modifiers (BRMs, also known as biologics) may be especially effective in preventing joint damage and easing symptoms. BRMs are a type of medicine designed to interrupt the complex signals that your immune system uses to function. By stopping the signals, these drugs help stop the process that is harming your joints.
While BRMs are an important advance in rheumatoid arthritis treatment, they aren’t a cure. Scientists continue to study RA to learn more about the condition. Current research is focusing on a variety of different aspects of the disease, including understanding the causes and the processes involved in RA and joint destruction. Here are some key areas of active research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH):
Understanding joint destruction on a molecular level. Scientists have identified a molecule that plays an important role in eroding your cartilage. They are exploring ways to block this molecule and prevent joint damage.
Identifying environmental or developmental triggers that start the disease in people who are susceptible to it. Environmental triggers include infections and cigarette smoking.
Studying the genetic basis for autoimmune diseases. Scientists have found a specific genetic element that is present in people with overactive immune systems. This genetic element may help explain why autoimmune diseases tend to run in families.
Learning which genes are associated with chronic inflammation and how they might influence RA treatment
Examining the genes of identical twins to understand how RA is triggered. In these studies, one twin has RA and the other does not. However, identical twins have the exact same genes at conception. By looking at how their genes have changed during their lives, scientists hope to gain insight into how RA develops.
Researchers are making great strides in understanding RA and other autoimmune diseases. If you are interested in learning more, talk to your doctor or visit the National Institutes of Healthwebsite at www.niams.nih.gov.