Reviewed by Varnada Karriem-Norwood on December 12, 2011

Sources

The Arthritis Foundation Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. W. Hayes Wilson, MD, Chief of Rheumatology, Piedmont Hospital, Atlanta, GA Piedmont Rheumatology Consultants, P.C.

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Video Transcript

Peggy Sammon: I started having problems with my hands, swelling, pain, and I went to several doctors and was finally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

Narrator: Peggy Sammon is one of over two million Americans who have endured the fatigue, morning stiffness and chronic pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

W. Hayes Wilson, MD: And it generally is bilaterally symmetrical, meaning it's on both sides of the body.

Narrator: So, for example, if you have it in your right hand you'll very likely have it in your left as well. As both a patient and a member of Dr. Wilson's office staff, Peggy knows the symptoms of Rheumatoid arthritis all too well.

Peggy Sammon: You can't hardly get up out the bed and it's difficult to walk.

Narrator: Unlike the more prevalent osteoarthritis, the rheumatoid variety is an auto-immune disorder where, for unknown reasons, the lining of the joints, or synovium, is attacked by the body's own immune system. The barrage causes swelling and intense pain and eventually compromises the cartilage and bone. Doctors like Wilson use many techniques to diagnosis the condition, such as evaluating whether certain agents are present in the blood, testing fluid from the affected joints, and examining X-rays, but...

W. Hayes Wilson, MD: In the end the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, unfortunately, can't be made on a lab test. It really takes an expert putting all the clues together to make that diagnosis. Where you see on this one for instance it's pretty normal. On this one there's clearly a bite out.

: Well let's have a look at the wrist.

Narrator: Even experts admit there is still much they don't know about how rheumatoid arthritis strikes.

Peggy Sammon: I say I'm like a barometer, you know. I can tell when there's a front coming through.

W. Hayes Wilson, MD: It's more than a myth—it really is true that changes in barometric pressure, humidity and temperature really do have an effect on patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Narrator: Many treatments are used to stave off the painful effects of RA, including hot and cold soaks, various types of exercise and physical therapy. A panoply of medicines are also used, starting with aspirin, and currently ending with drugs called biologic agents that work by suppressing specific components of the body's immune system.

Peggy Sammon: A biggest difference—I'm not as stiff in the mornings when I get up. If I stop during the day and rest a little bit, it doesn't—I don't have that pain of getting up and getting going again.

: Ok, put your chin on your chest

Narrator: Because bio-agents can leave patients more vulnerable to infection, the periodic injections must sometimes be suspended and replaced by a regimen of antibiotics. It's a tradeoff many rheumatologists readily accept when considering the alternative of not treating.

W. Hayes Wilson, MD: Well rheumatoid arthritis that goes untreated sometimes the hands can become contracted, where they can't even open up, so at that point there's nothing we can do.

Narrator: But researchers are currently working on a vaccine and many experts are hopeful for even more.

W. Hayes Wilson, MD: I do believe that it would be realistic to think in my lifetime that we will find a cure for rheumatoid arthritis.

Narrator: Such optimism holds great promise for patients like Peggy Sammon. For WebMD, I'm Damon Meharg.