Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease which causes chronic inflammation of the joints of the body. Systemic by nature, it can also affect surrounding structures such as muscles, tendons/ligaments, blood vessels, and organs. The most commonly affected sights, however, include the small joints of the hands and feet, elbows, ankles, and knees. Women are three times more likely to be affected and its onset commonly occurs between the ages of 40 and 60.

RA often impacts multiple joints in an insidious, bilateral fashion (that is, if the right wrist is affected, the left will be as well). Sufferers often experience episodic flare-ups followed by remissions, which can last weeks to years. During flare ups, symptoms can range from fever, chills, fatigue, muscle pain, loss of appetite, to joint inflammation (redness and heat) and joint stiffness – which in most cases gets progressively worse.

In extreme cases, the condition can lead to gnarled and distorted deformities of the joint, loss of range of motion (ROM), and chronic pain. Inflammation of organs such as the heart and lungs can cause serious cardiovascular disorders and invariably results in organ failure. It has also been known to cause a condition called Vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels), which if not treated properly, can lead to necrosis of tissue. Since RA is a degenerative joint disease, it is not uncommon for suffers to eventually develop some form of muscular atrophy and local osteoporosis surrounding the affected joints.

The causes of RA are unknown, although it is thought to be a genetically inherited condition. Triggers such as streptococcus infections, viral and other bacterial infections, as well as smoking in some cases, are all believed to play a part. For some unknown reason, the body’s immune system attacks the synovial membranes of the body. Antibodies (RA factor) and inflammatory mediators produced by lymphocytes and white blood cells are produced and proliferated throughout the joint spaces and synovial linings. An inflammation response ensues, causing the synovial lining to thicken and swell. A substance called “Pannus”, which is produced by the cells of the lining, slowly erodes away the joint capsule, the articular cartilage, and eventually the bone. As a result, scar tissue develops and forms an ankylosis. Whether it be a fibrotic ankylosis restricting the ROM of a joint, or a bony ankylosis which fuses the bones together, the results can be debilitating.

The emotional and psychological implications of the condition are commonly fraught with chronic pain and daily limitations. During flare-ups, sufferers often experience pain in the morning and after prolonged periods of inactivity. This fact makes getting up in the morning and facing the day a particularly daunting task. As a result, sufferers tend to group their errands and tasks into as few activities as possible – so planning and forethought is of major importance. Socially, people with RA tend to curtail their interactions and engagements with others out of sheer necessity. Dancing, playing sports, or even going for a stroll, take on a whole new meaning. Emotionally speaking, this decrease in contact with others can take its toll on some.

Common treatments for RA can include taking aspirin and cortisone to reduce inflammation to anti-biotics and physical therapy for long-term sufferers. Immunosuppressants such as methotrexate have become popular in preventing further joint degeneration. NSAIDS, gold salt injections, and various other anti-inflammatory drugs have been used to alleviate pain. And as we will see, a treatment plan during periods of remission to help increase circulation, ROM, and decrease stiffness and pain at the affected joints.


joe-azevedo2Joe Azevedo is a New York State/NCBTMB Licensed Massage Therapist, ARCB Certified Reflexologist, and an Advanced Reiki Practitioner. He is a graduate of the Swedish Institute and is the owner and founder of Brooklyn Reflexology.