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Autoimmune Disease and RA

Understanding the role played by the body’s immune system in the progress of rheumatoid arthritis.

What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?

The causes of autoimmune diseases remain unknown. Much more research is needed to fully understand them. However, evidence is pointing to infectious agents, such as viruses and bacteria. They may be important triggers in people who have a certain genetic makeup. Smoking or drugs also may trigger these chronic diseases.

“The initiating cause can occur up to four years before any clinical symptoms appear,” Peyman says.

“Everyone should be aware that they can reduce their risk of developing these diseases,” Peyman says. “As with cardiovascular disease and many cancers, inflammation is a major factor in the dysfunction of the immune system with autoimmune diseases. A diet rich in antioxidants and smoking cessation are good places to begin in reducing inflammation, he says.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Joint destruction is the hallmark of RA. The immune system attacks joint tissues for unknown reasons. White blood cells travel to the joint lining, or synovium, and cause inflammation known as synovitis. This leads to symptoms of warmth, redness, swelling, and pain. The chronic inflammation of RA causes the normally thin synovium to become thick and joints to become swollen and puffy.

With time, the inflamed synovium invades and destroys the cartilage and bone within the joint. Researchers studying rheumatoid arthritis now believe that it begins to damage bones during the first year or two that a person has the disease. That’s one reason why early diagnosis and treatment are so important.

About 1.3 million adults have RA. That’s down from a 1990 estimate of 2.1 million. The decrease partly reflects a more narrow definition of RA. However, the prevalence of RA does appear to be declining around the world. Women with rheumatoid arthritis still outnumber men two to one.

What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Recent research is uncovering a complex interplay between the hormonal, nervous, and immune systems in rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers are also trying to learn why rheumatoid arthritis often improves during pregnancy. One study suggests that certain proteins passed between the mother and unborn child may be responsible for the improvement. These are proteins that help the immune system tell the difference between the body’s own cells and foreign ones. This exchange of proteins may change the mother’s immune system during pregnancy in some way.

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