Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic disease characterized by inflamed joints leading to swelling, pain, stiffness, and the possible loss of function. It occurs when the body's immune system attacks tissues (groups of cells) that make up joints. This destroys the joint's protective cartilage (the firm, rubbery tissue that cushions bones at the joints). Healthy cartilage allows bones to glide smoothly over one another. Normal cartilage also absorbs the shock of physical movement. The cartilage in those with rheumatoid arthritis breaks down and wears away. As a result, the bones rub together, causing the pain, swelling, and stiffness associated with this condition. The inflammatory process of rheumatoid arthritis is not confined to joints, but may damage other organs in the body as well. In addition, rheumatoid arthritis can occur in children, this is known as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA).

Signs and Symptoms

RA usually develops slowly over time, with the following symptoms: Rheumatoid arthritis almost always follows a symmetrical pattern. This means that the same joints on opposite sides of the body are affected (for example, both the left and the right knees). This is important because it will help your doctor distinguish rheumatoid from other types of arthritis.

Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, also known as Still's disease, is usually preceded by a high fever and shaking chills; a pink skin rash may also be present.


Medical researchers do not know exactly why RA develops. They speculate that a combination of factors, including genetic susceptibility, an abnormal immune response, and certain changes in the body such as an infection or hormonal shift, can trigger its development.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for RA include:


Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose because it resembles many other conditions, and symptoms develop so gradually they can go unnoticed. Even after RA has been diagnosed, it is extremely important to determine how the disease is progressing in order to treat it appropriately.

Your doctor is likely to use a combination of the following methods to diagnose the disease and rule out the possibility of other causes of arthritis:

Treatment Approach

Rheumatoid arthritis usually requires lifelong treatment, including various medications, physical therapy, education, and possibly surgery. Treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and preserving joint function.

Regular visits to your healthcare provider will be necessary to monitor the progress of the disease and side effects of drugs you may be taking. This might also entail regular blood and urine tests.

Frequently, the disease can be controlled with a combination of treatments. Treatment may vary depending on the severity of the symptoms. Surgery may be needed, if medications fail.

For the past 10 years, studies have shown that early, aggressive treatment for RA can delay the onset of joint destruction. In addition torest, strengthening exercises, and anti-inflammatory agents, the current standard of care is to start therapy with disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) – that is, drugs that actually alter the course of the disease rather than just relieve symptoms. Studies show that certain dietary supplements, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, show promise in helping to relieve symptoms. Other symptom-relieving measures might include bathing in sulfur baths or warm pools, applying capsaicin to the skin for pain, and having electrical stimulation to increase muscle strength.


Range of motion exercises and individualized exercise programs prescribed by a physical therapist can help to maintain joint motion and strength and delay the loss of joint function.

Joint protection techniques, such as heat and cold treatments and splints or orthotic (straightening) devices to support and align joints, may be very helpful.


The following drugs are used to treat RA. Some promising new drugs include:

Surgery and Other Procedures

Occasionally, surgery may be required to treat severely affected joints. The most successful surgeries are those on the knees and hips. Removal of the synovium (called synovectomy) is a common surgical procedure.

A later alternative is total joint replacement with a prosthesis (an artificial joint). Surgeries can be expected to relieve pain, correct deformities, and modestly improve joint function. In extreme cases, total knee or hip replacement can mean the difference between being completely dependent on others and having an independent life at home.

Nutrition and Dietary Supplements

In general, it is important to eat a nutritious diet full of whole foods including protein, which is needed to heal. Foods rich in the B vitamins, vitamin E, zinc, and selenium may be particularly important. Although there are claims of several types of diets being effective for rheumatoid arthritis, no one diet has been found to work for everyone.

There are reports of people with RA who experienced an improvement in their symptoms when they switched from a typical Western diet (high in animal protein and simple sugars) to a vegan diet with lots of uncooked berries, fruits, vegetables, nuts, roots, seeds, and sprouts. Vegan diets contain no animal products and obtain protein from vegetable sources.

Elimination/provocation diets (also called elimination/re-challenging diets), designed to detect allergens by systematically taking certain foods out of the diet and reintroducing them one at a time can be considered but should be strictly supervised by a qualified physician and/or dietitian. If this process is followed, you should keep careful track of your symptoms in a food diary to see if the dietary changes impact your symptoms or not.

Because supplements may have side effects or interact with medications, they should be taken only under the supervision of a knowledgeable healthcare provider.

Bromelain (Ananas comosus), found in pineapples, is a mixture of enzymes with anti-inflammatory properties. Preliminary studies suggest that bromelain may help reduce the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, studies of people with osteoarthritis suggest that bromelain supplements may be as effective as some commonly used nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications (such as ibuprofen and diclofenac) for reducing pain associated with this other type of arthritis. Bromelain is generally recommended for no longer than 8 to 10 days in a row. Quercetin and bromelain are often taken together.

Animal studies suggest that oral copper supplements reduce the development and progression of arthritis. Many people with RA apply copper solutions to their skin or wear copper bracelets in hopes of relieving pain and inflammation. Although reports of success with these methods are mixed, one early study did show that the copper bracelets worked better than placebo bracelets. Sweat can interfere with how well the topical copper solutions and bracelets work.

People with rheumatoid arthritis tend to have low levels of MnSOD (an antioxidant that helps protect the joints from damage during inflammation). Manganese supplementation is thought to increase MnSOD activity. Also, manganese is often combined with glucosamine and/or chondroitin, two substances often used to help treat the other major type of arthritis, osteoarthritis.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Extensive research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and help prevent arthritis. Omega-3s are essential fatty acids, meaning that the body requires them but must obtain them from food. Several articles reviewing the research on omega-3 fatty acids conclude that omega-3 supplements reduce tenderness in joints, decrease morning stiffness, and allow for a reduction in the amount of medication needed for people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Further, an animal study suggests that treatment with omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of ulcers from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). More research is needed to determine whether this particular effect applies to people.

Good sources for omega-3 fatty acids include fish oils (from cold water oily fish) and plant oils (for example, rapeseed [canola] oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin seed oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and walnut oil).

Another potential source of omega-3 fatty acids is the New Zealand green lipped mussel (Perna canaliculus), used for centuries by the Maori people for good health. In a trial involving 28 people with RA, nearly 70% of those who received P. canaliculus extracts experienced the following: Note, however, that 10% of participants experienced a temporary worsening of symptoms when first taking the supplement. In addition, it is better to use lipid extracts of P. canaliculus rather than powder as there is less chance of an allergic reaction. P. canaliculus should be avoided by people who are allergic to seafood.

Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Some preliminary information indicates that gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid, from evening primrose oil (EPO), borage oil, or black currant seed oil, may diminish joint pain, swelling, and morning stiffness. GLA may also allow for lower amounts of pain medication. These studies have been small in size, but nevertheless, you may want to talk to your doctor about whether using GLA is safe for you. Pay attention, over 1 to 3 months of use, to whether your symptoms get better or not. Note that some researchers theorize that borage oil may not be safe to use with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen). This theory needs to be tested.

At the same time that this particular omega-6 fatty acid (namely, GLA) may be helpful, other omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid, found in vegetable oils and arachidonic acid, found in meat) should be avoided because these promote inflammation.

Quercetin is a flavonoid as well as an antioxidant found in many fruits, fresh berries, and vegetables. Laboratory and animal studies suggest that quercetin has anti-inflammatory properties. In test tubes, for example, quercetin inhibits the type of inflammation that can occur in the joints of those with arthritis. Bromelain can enhance the effects of quercetin.

Selenium is an essential mineral found in tiny amounts in the body. It is also an antioxidant, and is found in fish, shellfish, Brewer's yeast, wheat germ, garlic, whole grains, sunflower seeds, and Brazil nuts. Low levels of selenium in the blood may be associated with increased risk of RA. It is not known whether supplementation with selenium alone is beneficial. Some experts believe, however, that the combination of selenium and vitamin E can relieve symptoms of RA.

Sulfur is a naturally occurring mineral found primarily near hot springs and volcanic craters. It is available in two supplement forms - dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). Sulfur-containing mud baths (often called balneotherapy) is one of the oldest forms of therapy to relieve pain for people with arthritis, and this tradition is supported by scientific studies. Soaks in the Dead Sea, with or without mud packs, may be particularly beneficial. The benefits that you can experience from sulfur baths if you have arthritis include: You can purchase mud packs and Dead Sea salts over the counter. These are not as effective as a spa treatment or the Dead Sea itself, but you may feel better. More studies are needed to determine whether topical application of DMSO is effective for reducing pain.

Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
Although vitamin B5 has not been widely used for RA, some researchers report that blood levels of vitamin B5 are lower in people with RA than those without this condition. A study conducted in 1980 concluded that 2,000 mg/day of calcium pantothenate (a form of vitamin B5) improved symptoms of RA including morning stiffness and pain. Further studies are needed to confirm these findings, but there may be some benefit to making sure that there is an adequate amount of vitamin B5 in your diet. Vitamin B5 is found in a wide variety of foods, such as fresh meat and vegetables and whole grains. Processed and frozen foods contain lower amounts of this vitamin.

Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
Low levels of vitamin B6 have been associated with rheumatoid arthritis. This may be due to low dietary intake of vitamin B6. In addition, methotrexate and penicillamine, drugs sometimes prescribed for RA, can reduce the levels of vitamin B6 in people taking either of these medications.

Vitamin B Complex
Eating a balanced diet, including a complete vitamin B complex, is a good practice. It is not known if taking extra vitamin B5 or B6 is of any use if you have arthritis. Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid)
Methotrexate, commonly prescribed for RA, increases your body's need for folic acid. Taking a folic acid supplement decreases the side effects from the drug without reducing its effectiveness.

Vitamin D
Vitamin D is needed to maintain healthy cartilage. Vitamin D has been shown to prevent the breakdown of cartilage in people with osteoarthritis. It is possible that adequate amounts of vitamin D may also be useful for those with RA.

Vitamin D is found in cod liver oil, fatty fish, eggs, and fortified milk and cereal. If you follow a vegan diet, don't get enough exposure to the sun, or are obese or older, you may be prone to having low levels of vitamin D and may need to take a supplement.

Additional nutrients that may prove beneficial as part of the treatment of RA if more research is conducted include:


The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, contain active substances that can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care and only under the supervision of a practitioner knowledgeable in the field of herbal medicine.

The following have been used traditionally to treat rheumatoid arthritis: A qualified herbal specialist may recommend a single herb or a combination of substances. It is important, if you are considering taking herbs for RA, that you work closely with a knowledgeable practitioner and follow their instructions carefully.

Other herbs that may be considered by an herbalist that do have some scientific backing include:

Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
Preliminary studies suggest that black cohosh may help reduce inflammation associated with the two main types of arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. In a review of scientific studies, researchers concluded that a combination of black cohosh, willow bark (Salix spp.), sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.), guaiacum (Guaiacum officinale) resin, and poplar bark (Populus tremuloides) may help relieve symptoms of osteoarthritis. Whether this same combination would be helpful for RA requires research

Capsaicin (Capsicum frutescens)
Capsaicin is the main component in hot chili peppers (also known as cayenne). Applied to the surface of the skin, it is believed to deplete stores of a substance that contributes to inflammation and pain in arthritis. Pain reduction generally begins 3 to 7 days after initially applying the capsaicin cream to the skin, but may be most pronounced after about 4 weeks of use. Wash hands well with vinegar after use and avoid touching the eyes.

Cat's claw (Uncaria tomentosa)
In a study of 40 people with RA who were taking the drugs sulfazaline or hydroxychloroquine, treatment with an extract from cat's claw for 24 weeks resulted in reduced joint pain and swelling.

Devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens)
Devil's claw has been evaluated for helping to treat the other main type of arthritis, osteoarthritis, and may prove to be beneficial for RA, if studied properly. For people with osteoarthritis, devil's claw appears to decrease pain, improve joint function, and reduce the amount of medications used.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
Although many laboratory tests demonstrate anti-inflammatory properties of feverfew and many professional herbalists recommend feverfew for the treatment of arthritis, a study conducted in 1989 concluded that feverfew was no more effective than placebo in improving symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Some experts argue that this study was poorly designed, particularly because some patients continued, throughout the study, to use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which can interfere with feverfew and reduce its effectiveness. (NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, are commonly prescribed or recommended for arthritis.) Until further studies are conducted, it appears that the safety and effectiveness of feverfew for people with rheumatoid arthritis has yet to be scientifically proven.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger extract has long been used in traditional medical practices (such as Ayurvedic and Chinese) to decrease inflammation. There have been case reports of the benefit of ginger for RA in the medical literature. In one case, a man with RA consumed fresh ginger lightly cooked in meat and vegetable dishes every day and after 3 months was completely free of pain and swelling. More research is needed before it can be said that ginger relieves the symptoms of RA.

Willow bark (Salix spp.)
This herb has been used traditionally for arthritis because it can decrease pain and reduce inflammation. In fact, it was from salicylic acid, one of the ingredients in willow bark, that aspirin was originally synthesized.

Massage and Physical Therapy

It is important to maintain a balance between rest (which will reduce inflammation) and exercise (which will relieve stiffness and weakness). Studies have suggested that even as little as 3 hours of physical therapy over 6 weeks will help you if you have RA, and that these benefits are sustained.

The goal of exercise is the following: While traditional guidelines have restricted RA patients to only gentle exercise, recent research suggests that more intense exercise may not only be safe, but may actually produce greater muscle strength and overall functioning. Signs from your body are the best guides for how long or hard you should exercise. Balneotherapy is one of the oldest forms of therapy for pain relief for people with arthritis. The term "balneo" comes from the Latin word for bath (balneum) and refers to bathing in thermal or mineral waters. Sulfur-containing mud baths, for example, have been shown to relieve symptoms of arthritis. The goals of balneotherapy for arthritis include: Exercising and swimming in a heated pool may also be beneficial.

Mechanical Aids
A variety of mechanical devices, called orthoses, are available for people with RA to help support and protect joints. Made from lightweight metal leather, elastic, foam, and plastic, orthoses allow some movement within the affected joint and do not restrict nearby joints. For example, splints or braces help align joints and properly distribute weight. Shock-absorbing soles in shoes can help in daily activities and during exercise. These mechanical aids are used most frequently to treat arthritic hands, wrists, knees, ankles, and feet. Orthoses should be custom-fitted by a physical or occupational therapist.

Another potentially helpful aid is compression gloves. Two studies on the overnight use of compression gloves (close-fitting nylon-spandex gloves) concluded that the gloves reduced pain and stiffness in people with RA in the fingers.

Other possibilities for symptom relief include: Homeopathy
Recent trials evaluating the use of homeopathy in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis found that the remedies were no more effective than placebo in reducing symptoms. These studies contradict an older trial that showed beneficial effects with homeopathic treatment. Despite the lack of definitive evidence, professional homeopaths might recommend one of the following treatments for RA based on their knowledge and clinical experience, as well as successful trials for homeopathy to treat another type of arthritis, namely osteoarthritis. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account an individual's constitutional type. In homeopathic terms, a person's constitution is his or her physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.

Potential remedies include: Mind/Body Medicine
Chronic pain and disability can make daily functioning difficult. A holistic approach to your care may positively affect both your lifestyle and how you feel overall. Many people report that relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery and meditation, are an important part of general care and help to alleviate pain and other symptoms of RA.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Tai Chi
This gentle exercise program practiced in China for centuries has been shown to produce a number of benefits, including the following: In a trial of people ranging in age from 49 to 81 with another type of arthritis, namely osteoarthritis, of the knee or hip, those who practiced tai chi twice a week for 3 months showed significant improvement compared to those in the control group in the following areas:

Other Considerations

Borage seed oil, and possibly other sources of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), should not be used during pregnancy because they may be harmful to the fetus and induce early labor. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should also not take goldenrod.

Warnings and Precaution

s Omega-6 fatty acid supplements should not be used if you have a seizure disorder because there have been reports of these inducing seizures.

Stinging nettle may enhance the effect of NSAIDs. Although the combination of stinging nettle and NSAIDs may be beneficial for the treatment of arthritic conditions, a knowledgeable healthcare provider should be consulted before adding this herb to an existing medication regimen.

Prognosis and Complications

RA is associated with the following joint-related complications: RA is also associated with several complications that do not involve the joints. These include: The course of the disease varies between individuals. People with a certain antibody in the blood (rheumatoid factor) and/or nodules (small swellings) under the skin seem to have more severe disease. People who develop RA at younger ages also tend to have faster disease progression.

Remission is most likely to occur in the first year and then likelihood decreases over time. Ten to 15 years after the initial diagnosis, about 20% of people will have had remission and most people will still be able to look after themselves.

Although complications may shorten the life expectancy of people with RA, treatment is constantly improving and the occurrence of severe disability and life-threatening complications appears to be decreasing.


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