Of the more than 100 types of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is among the most potentially debilitating. More common among women, RA is an autoimmune disorder—the body’s own immune system attacks its tissue, especially in the small joints of the wrists and hands, causing pain, swelling, stiffness, deformity and loss of function.

Exactly why the immune system goes haywire in some people is unknown. “Like other autoimmune diseases, RA is fairly complex,” says Dr. Katherine Temprano, a SLUCare rheumatologist. “We know that there is some genetic predisposition. Family history of the disease and smoking are the primary risk factors.” She adds that the disease can strike at any age, but early middle age seems to be the most common age of onset.

“The earlier rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed and treated, the better,” Temprano says. “The ultimate goal is to put the patient into remission. We can’t cure RA, but we can keep it as quiet as possible with medications. And the earlier we begin using disease-modifying drugs, the better the chance of remission.” To catch RA early, she urges women to tell their primary-care physician if they notice unusual fatigue, joint pain, swelling or morning stiffness that lasts more than an hour.

Although RA remains incurable, Temprano sounds a note of optimism in describing the variety of medications available to treat rheumatoid arthritis, often sparing the patient from joint deformities and disability. In addition to effective medications that have been around for decades, newer drugs, including advanced biologic agents and immunosuppressant therapies, can be combined for individualized control of symptoms and disease progression.

Yet people with RA have much more than just medicines available to help them cope. The Arthritis Foundation Eastern Missouri Chapter (arthritis.org/missouri) provides a variety of educational and support tools for those diagnosed with all forms of arthritis.

“Arthritis affects a lot of people, and so we offer a lot of ways to help deal with it,” says Karen Shoulders, director of programs for the local AF chapter. She suggests newly diagnosed individuals begin by browsing the AF website for listings of programs, support groups, classes, events and services.

“Information and referral resources are in high demand among the newly diagnosed,” Shoulders says. “A lot of people want to gather as much information as they can about their medications, diet, exercise, and pain and stress management. They use our resources and share them with family, caregivers and physicians.”

Most Arthritis Foundation programs are free and offered at various sites throughout the region. Taught by trained, certified instructors, they include exercise classes, arthritis self-management programs, community awareness events and fundraising opportunities. “There’s a lot people can do. Arthritis is not just an inevitable disability anymore,” Shoulders says.

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