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Rheumatoid arthritis: Eight top myths

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Rheumatoid arthritis affects around 580,000 people in England and Wales, but there is still misunderstanding and misconceptions about this common and severe joint condition.

Arthritis is common, and rheumatoid arthritis often gets confused with the other kinds of arthritis in people's minds.

Plus, rheumatoid arthritis – an autoimmune condition - is still mysterious in many ways. Research and new treatments are constantly changing the understanding of the disease.
Even the experts still have a lot to learn about rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is just like "regular arthritis".

Fact: Rheumatoid arthritis is not "regular arthritis". What we think of as "regular arthritis" is osteoarthritis, caused by injury or normal wear-and-tear on ageing joints. Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disease in middle age to older people.

By contrast, rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, progressive autoimmune disorder. In response to an unknown trigger, the body makes antibodies that attack its own tissues. These attacks mostly affect the joints, although they can also affect other body parts. Disease attacks, called flare-ups, occur periodically, or can be continuous in some people.

This is one of the most common confusions, between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. It gets even more confusing, because people with RA often also have osteoarthritis.

Only old people get rheumatoid arthritis.

Fact: In most people who develop RA, the disease starts between the ages of 40 and 70.

This is the peak age group, but anyone can get rheumatoid arthritis, even teenagers. At the same time, older people may have more severe RA, because it's progressive and they've been living with it longer.

Rheumatoid arthritis isn't all that serious.

Fact: Rheumatoid arthritis can threaten your health and independence, especially if it's inadequately treated.

A lot of people downplay RA and will put off seeing a doctor, often for months or years. A lot of joint damage can happen during that time.

Rheumatoid arthritis needs prompt diagnosis and regular treatment to protect joints from harm. In turn, this can protect your independence and long-term function.

Having rheumatoid arthritis also increases the risk of certain other conditions. Cardiovascular diseases, infections and lung disease are all more common in people with RA.

Most people with rheumatoid arthritis end up using a wheelchair or living in a 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 before the latest biological treatments were introduced.

Today, the overwhelming majority of people having treatment for rheumatoid arthritis will do very well in retaining independence and mobility.

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.

Many people will need changes at work and help from occupation therapists, but a large proportion of people with RA can keep 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.

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