As we age, most of us will experience some osteoarthritis. It is simply the degeneration of joints and loss of cartilage due to wear and tear. It is painful and can lead to loss of use of a joint over many years. Pain medications, supplements and therapy are used to combat the effects of osteoarthritis, along with surgery in many cases to replace worn joints. Osteoarthritis generally does not require aggressive and early treatment to slow the progression of the disease.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an altogether different condition that also affects the joints, as well as the entire body. It is classified as an inflammatory autoimmune disease. It does require aggressive and early treatment to avoid joint deformity. Left untreated, rheumatoid disease will, in most cases, leave the patient with deformity of hands, elbows, knees and feet and permanent disability. Unlike osteoarthritis, it can strike at any age, even in childhood.
Since I was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, people have often asked me how it differs from osteoarthritis. People who are experiencing their own aches and pains are curious as to how my symptoms compare with theirs. Usually, they are relieved to know that their symptoms are not the same as mine, since rheumatoid disease treatment is much more complex and aggressive.
Rheumatoid disease, also known as crippling arthritis, happens when an overactive immune system mistakenly attacks the fluid surrounding the joints, causing inflammation, fever, bone destruction, muscle atrophy and intense pain. Rheumatoid disease is a systemic inflammation meaning it can affect all areas of the body, including the heart, lungs and kidneys. It is chronic and requires medication for the rest of your life, in most cases. And, yes, it is quite likely that a person with rheumatoid disease will also have osteoarthritis, as I do.
In my case, I noticed some unusual, severe and persistent pain in certain joints over the months preceding the acute onset of the rheumatoid disease. Along with the pain, I was experiencing intense fatigue and some weight loss. When the disease struck in full force, it was seemingly overnight and extremely acute. I was reduced to being unable to pull myself out of bed or dress myself without help. My hands and wrists became virtually useless in less than 48 hours.
My wrists and hands were very swollen, painful and felt hot to the touch. I had zero gripping strength so that even holding a toothbrush was excruciating and next to impossible. I couldn’t open a bottle or a car door. It felt like both of my wrists and hands had been crushed. My feet were also affected but to a lesser degree. Rheumatoid arthritis is usually bilateral, affecting the same joints on both sides of the body, often in multiple sets of joints.
Frightened and baffled as to what could be wrong with me, I went to an urgent care facility on a Sunday morning and they immediately suspected rheumatoid disease and quickly arranged an appointment with a rheumatologist within the next few days. Thankfully, I was treated aggressively with prednisone, methotrexate and a biologic drug, that together over approximately a year brought the disease under reasonable control. I was able stop the prednisone once the biologic drug became effective, at around three months into treatment.
Osteoarthritis will usually progress over time but will not affect other parts of the body. The joint will not become deformed but may produce some calcification causing enlargement and loss of movement. If left untreated, rheumatoid disease can rapidly progress from swelling and intense pain to bone erosion, joint deformity and loss of use.
Permanent joint damage from rheumatoid disease can occur within the first year, so seeing a rheumatologist quickly is a good idea. In my case, early medical intervention got the disease under control within a few months and helped prevent possible permanent disability.