Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disease that causes joint pain and swelling. It primarily involves inflammation of the lining of the joints but can also involve internal organs such as the eyes, lungs and heart.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease, which means it lasts a long time. Many people with RA note that their arthritis symptoms change over time. At times, people with RA will notice their disease is more active and at others they will notice their disease is less active. Early diagnosis and treatment is essential for the prevention of many of the complications of RA.
When Is Arthritis Not Just a Joint Disease?
Joint pain is extremely common and affects nearly every adult at some point in his or her life. The presence of chronic joint pains may sometimes be considered “arthritis”.
Common symptoms of arthritis include:
- Achy or painful joints
- Morning stiffness of the joints
- Stiffness after periods of inactivity
- Joint swelling
However, it is important to note that arthritis is not always just a joint disease. Sometimes it actually reflects the presence an underlying immune system disorder. An autoimmune disorder is when the body’s immune system attacks itself. This attack can initially occur in the joints, but it can also affect nearly every other organ system in the body.
The systemic autoimmune diseases are usually described as a complex group of diseases that are characterized by the presence of organ damage caused by immune system dysfunction. Often times, patients with systemic autoimmune diseases have proteins in the blood (called auto-antibodies) that support the presence of an autoimmune disease. Because of the systemic nature of these diseases, any of the body’s organs are at risk — and the joints are a favorite target. Two of the most common of these disorders are rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and systemic lupus erythematosus.
As such, when arthritis is a manifestation of a systemic disorder — such as RA — joint disease may not be the only aspect of the disease. Proper monitoring by a rheumatologist for other organ involvement is important for long-term care.
For example, other organs that may be affected by the systemic autoimmune diseases include:
- the eyes (e.g., uveitis or scleritis)
- the lungs (e.g., interstitial lung disease)
- the kidneys (e.g., glomerulonephritis)
- the blood vessels (called vasculitis)
- the heart (e.g., pericarditis)
- the nerves (e.g. mononeuritis multiplex).
Systemic autoimmune disorders may be difficult to diagnose and often require interdisciplinary care. The rheumatologists at National Jewish Health understand this. They specialize in diagnosing and treating these systemic autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. Our focus goes well beyond the joint disease and also includes a focus on what other organ systems may be at risk.
Learn more about the Division of Rheumatology and the Autoimmune Lung Center at National Jewish Health.