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Rheumatoid Arthritis: 8 Top Myths

Separate the myths from the truth about RA.

Myth No. 4: Most people with rheumatoid arthritis end up in a wheelchair or nursing home because of the disease.

Fact: Rheumatoid arthritis takes a different course in different people, but most people go on living independently.

Because of its progressive nature, rheumatoid arthritis has caused disability in many people. Much of the available information, though, comes from 20- or 30-year-old studies.

"These were done in another era -- before we started treating early with methotrexate, before we had the new biologic agents," says Kremer. "We have made extraordinary strides in the treatment of this disease. Today, the overwhelming majority of people under treatment for rheumatoid arthritis will do very well" in retaining independence and mobility, he says.

A recent study suggests Kremer is right: 94% of people with rheumatoid arthritis continued to perform all their normal activities independently after 10 years with the disease.

Myth No. 5: Most people with rheumatoid arthritis can't work.

Fact: Work tasks or habits may need to change with rheumatoid arthritis. But the diagnosis doesn't equal a lifetime of disability.

"Again, this myth may have been true in an earlier era, prior to the current treatments," says Kremer. "Certainly many people will need allowances at work, or will have to limit some activities during disease flares. But a large proportion of people with RA go right on working."

In fact, in one large study of people who had had rheumatoid arthritis for more than 10 years, their employment rates were no different than those of similar-age people without RA.

Myth No. 6: Because treatments for rheumatoid arthritis can be toxic, it's best to wait until the disease progresses before beginning treatment.

"This may be the most dangerous myth," warns Kremer.

There is now abundant proof that treating rheumatoid arthritis early prevents joint damage and disability. "Ideally, treatment should start as soon as possible after diagnosis," he adds. "Delaying treatment can mean worse outcomes down the road."

Numerous studies suggest that early treatment could delay full-blown rheumatoid arthritis from developing in some people.

It's true, medications used to treat RA can have side effects. Rarely are the side effects worse than untreated rheumatoid arthritis, though. Simple blood tests and doctor's visits can detect many of the serious side effects of rheumatoid arthritis medications.

Myth No. 7: Most people with rheumatoid arthritis get cancer, too.

Fact: People with rheumatoid arthritis are at slightly higher risk for developing lymphoma (blood cancer), but the risk is low overall.  

"For lymphoma, the lifetime risk is about twice as high in people with RA. It's not clear why," says Kremer.

However, let’s keep that in perspective. Even with the increased risk, only a small minority of people with RA get lymphoma.

For example, in one study, after following over two thousand people with rheumatoid arthritis for about eight years, 11 of them developed lymphoma. According to population estimates, between three and eight people without rheumatoid arthritis would be expected to develop lymphoma over that same time period.  

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