Inflammation is your body’s way to fight disease or injury. When your immune system thinks there’s a problem (like a virus or bacteria), it releases certain cells in your blood, and more blood flows to the affected area. That can cause redness, warmth, swelling, or pain.
The pain from RP usually comes on suddenly, and it can happen to both men and women, and to people of all ages. But it’s more likely to start between the ages of 40 and 60.
It affects people in different ways. Some get a mild case of RP once in a while, and the symptoms go away on their own. Others have lots of pain and more frequent attacks.
Because it can affect key organs, RP can lead to serious illness and can be life-threatening.
Doctors don’t know what causes RP. Some think a certain gene may make you more likely to get it, but it doesn’t run in families.
The disease mostly affects cartilage (firm but flexible tissue) in your ears and joints. It also may show up in your nose, ribs, spine, and windpipe. It can affect any area where the tissue is similar to cartilage, like your eyes, heart, skin, kidney, ribs, blood vessels, and nervous system.
Common signs of relapsing polychondritis include:
- A dip in the bridge of your nose ("saddle nose" or "pug nose")
- Ear pain and redness
- Red, painful, and swollen eyes
- Painful, swollen joints (hands, fingers, shoulders, elbows, knees, ankles, toes, pelvis)
- Rib pain
- Throat or neck pain
- Trouble breathing and speaking
- Trouble swallowing
Depending on where RP affects you, it can cause problems with a heart valve or kidney issues as well. If RP affects your inner ear, you could feel sick to your stomach or have trouble with hearing and balance.
There isn’t a test for RP. Your doctor will examine you and ask questions about your symptoms. He might ask you to get a blood test to look for signs of inflammation or X-rays so he can see the affected areas better.
To find out for sure if you have RP, your doctor might look for three or more of these:
- Inflammation of the cartilage in both your ears
- Inflammation of the cartilage in your nose
- Inflammation of the cartilage in your airway
- Arthritis in five or more joints at the same time
- Hearing or balance problems.
In some cases, your doctor may want to take a small amount of tissue to look at under a microscope. This is known as a biopsy.
There’s no cure for RP, but your doctor can help you feel better and save your cartilage. Anti-inflammatories (like Motrin or Advil) can help with pain, especially for people who have a mild case of RP.
In severe cases, she might recommend stronger drugs that slow down your immune system. And depending on which organs are affected, you might need surgery to fix a damaged heart valve or put in a breathing tube.