When someone tells you that they have arthritis, do you ever think to ask what kind they have? Most of the time, people who say that they have arthritis actually mean the kind that comes with old age. It’s called osteoarthritis. It’s a natural, if unfortunate part of aging, where our joints just wear out. But there is another kind of arthritis out there that seems to share nothing but similarity in name, with osteoarthritis. It’s called rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, and it’s hardly a natural part of life. It’s an autoimmune disease where the body fights itself and destroys its own joints. What causes arthritis like this, and how do you tell them apart so that you don’t manage to say something quite insensitive to someone who suffers from RA?
about 1 million people in America have RA; there are 50 times as many people with osteoarthritis. If you see a 30-year-old or even a 20-year-old claiming to suffer from arthritis, their age would be your clue to understanding that they don’t mean osteoarthritis, the thing you get when you are old. They could only mean that they have RA, a disease that can strike at any age. The only way a young person could get osteoarthritis is if they were in a terrible accident.
So what causes arthritis of the rheumatoid kind? In RA, the body mistakenly thinks that its own joints are alien creatures invading. The body attacks its own joints. And the body reacts the way it would if it had foreign bodies invading – you get a fever, a swelling and inflammation. A person with osteoarthritis past the age of 60 never gets any of these.
For two diseases that come from completely different causes, the surprising thing is that they get treated with more or less the same kinds of medication. The only difference is that with RA, they get stronger versions of the drugs, like steroids and NSAIDS, that people with osteoarthritis get. When things get out of hand with the person with RA, they even get chemotherapy with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs.
You notice that most people who complain of osteoarthritis usually have a terrible time walking? Regular wear and tear is what causes arthritis of this kind. And it usually attacks major joints like the knees where the most wear is likely to happen. RA attacks just any joint; usually, it’s in places that don’t wear out quickly like the fingers or the wrists. When a person is fairly crippled by arthritis in little joints all over the body, you can be sure that they’re complaining of RA.