Cracking the Code in the Battle Against Rheumatoid Arthritis

xray arthritisAbout 1 in 5 adults in the United States has been diagnosed with arthritis, according to the Center for Disease Control. And approximately 1.5 million Americans suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, known as RA, says Brian Wu, Ph.D.

But, what does that mean? Is RA the same as any other arthritis? “The exact cause of RA remains a mystery,” says Wu.

Call in the Code Breakers!

Technically, “arthritis” means “inflammation of the joints.” Rheumatoid arthritis, specifically, refers to chronic swelling of the joints, but can actually be systemic. “Symptoms typically come and go and result from inflammation. Joint aches and stiffness, muscle aches, low-grade fever, fatigue, lack of appetite and loss of energy are characteristic of active disease,” says medical author Melissa Conrad Stoppler, M.D. of

While arthritis is an umbrella term to describe pain and stiffness in the joints, there are different types of arthritis carrying on mayhem of their own kind.

To decipher the difference, look at rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA), which appear similar, but have two completely different modus operandi.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease, the most common form of arthritis. Sufferers are experiencing a wearing down of cartilage in the joints where, eventually, bone rubs bone. Ouch!

RA is an autoimmune disease that, because it is systemic, can affect the entire body, not limited to the joints. RA begins in the smaller joints of the body and tends to be symmetrical. Therefore, if your right hand is inflamed, chances are your left hand is as well.

OA is not symmetrical, but is also common in the hands, especially in the beginning, fanning out to the spine, hips and knees.

Both OA and RA are more common in women than in men. And while they are also both more common in older adults, people of all ages have been known to suffer from either form of arthritis.

OA is more likely to strike men or women who are overweight or have diabetes, while RA is seen more often among smokers.

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, RA is sometimes genetic, though it may be caused by environmental factors or hormones. Most patients experience swelling and stiffness in their joints, and if it affects one hand or knee, it likely affects the other as well.

Women are approximately three times more likely than men to develop RA at some time in their lives, and about 1 in 100 people develop RA at some time in their lives. Most people are at least 40 years of age when they see the symptoms occur.

A joint is the place where bones meet, and the area contains cartilage, which covers the bones and a fluid that lubricates the joint. With RA, antibodies are formed against the tissue that surrounds each joint, causing inflammation. The most commonly affected joints are in the fingers, thumbs, wrists, feet and ankles. Sometimes patients complain of pain in the hips, shoulders, elbows and neck as well.

If untreated, those suffering from arthritis run the risk of causing permanent damage to the joints.

What about Younger Women?

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, women who live with rheumatoid arthritis during childbearing years have a shortage of information about treatment during pregnancy and post-natal periods. The researchers conducted a study that included more than two dozen women with RA who were either planning a pregnancy, were pregnant at the time, or within the previous five years. What they found was that there is a greater need for access to physical/emotional support services and information regarding parenting, medication and treatment decisions. They concluded that among women with RA, they had a desire to learn more about their condition in that stage of life, especially information about safety of medications during pregnancy and breastfeeding.


Chiropractic Code Breakers

Rheumatoid Arthritis used to be treated with bed rest, but experts take a different tack now. Says the American Chiropractic Association, patients shouldn’t spend excess time lying down. Recent research has fueled a new approach: exercise is actually prescribed for women suffering from pain and stiffness in their joints.

Why? It strengthens muscles and increases endurance and flexibility, while also battling weight gain. That doesn’t mean that the “doctor’s orders” exclude rest. During the least active cycles, patients should exercise, and during flare-ups, rest is called for. But even during painful times, arthritis sufferers should make their joints go through a full range of motion.


In fact, the American Chiropractic Association suggests the following exercises:

  • Stretching and dance, to be done daily
  • Strengthening, such as weightlifting, done every other day, unless pain and swelling are severe
  • Aerobic/endurance, such as walking, bike riding, swimming, done 20-30 minutes a day, 3 times/week unless pain and swelling are severe

In addition to providing a nutritional consultation, a chiropractor can help patients develop an exercise program, help restore loss of range of motion to the joints, improve flexibility and endurance and increase muscle tone and strength.

Chiropractic care can offer relief to patients using non-invasive, drug-free methods. One of the most common tools to treat RA is spinal manipulation. Misalignments, also known as spinal subluxations, can be detected by the chiropractic expert, and a treatment plan can be formed to tackle the task of relief from pain. Non-invasive procedures may include light, massage, water or heat. You may also be prescribed orthotics, braces or other support devices.

The evaluation involves short-term pressure applied to the affected area, aiming to test the joint’s range of motion. You may hear cracking or popping during the exam. As the chiropractor focuses on the spine, he or she can check alignment and observe the relationship between the spine and the functioning of the rest of the body.

Behind Enemy Lines with Tobacco & Alcohol

You can already guess that smoking is an arthritis no-no. As for drinking alcohol, there are two sides to the argument.

Some medications commonly prescribed for RA, such as Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), put you at risk when combined with alcohol. The combination increases your risk of stomach bleeding. Patients taking Tylenol for pain should limit their alcohol consumption, due to an increased risk of liver damage.

By contrast, there have been studies that support moderate alcohol use for RA sufferers. Research conducted at Oxford in the UK by the Department of Rheumatology at Rotherham Hospital suggested that alcohol consumption had an inverse association with the risk and severity of RA.

Another study, by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass. concluded that a moderate amount of beer might positively affect the development of RA. “Long-term, moderate alcohol drinking may reduce future rheumatoid arthritis development,” says Bing Lu, M.D. of the Division of Rheumatology, Immunology and Allergy at BWH. “The study found that moderate use of any form of alcohol reduced the risk by 21 percent, but moderate beer drinking – between 2 and 4 per week – cut women’s odds by nearly a third.”

Combat-Ready to Fight Joint Pain

Medical professionals suggest the following to increase energy and decrease pain:

Low-Impact Exercise

If you make choices like climbing, walking, or using an elliptical machine, you should experience improvement in your range of motion and comfort. Check to see if your gym has a low-impact aerobics class, or a synchronized swim class.

Resistance Training

Your bones and muscles will become stronger if you use resistance in your weight training. Your joints become better supported by stronger muscles. Use free weights, machines or elastic bands designed for resistance.


Defined as “strength training where the joint angle and muscle length do not change,” isometric exercises are particularly useful when other workouts are painful. You simply tighten muscles in different parts of your body without creating motion, building muscle, which is the goal.


Begin slowly, and gain the ability to extend your fingers through the use of exercises. You can squeeze a foam ball or sponge. A warm bath before stretching may ease the execution. The importance is to increase your flexibility and ease pain and stiffness.


Despite the mysterious nature of rheumatoid arthritis, experts keep their hands to the wheel, concentrating on cracking the combination that unlocks its debilitating tendencies.


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