Although rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is widespread, affecting an estimated 1.5 million Americans,1 many myths surround the disease. As a clinician, it’s important to be aware of misconceptions your patients might have about this chronic condition.

Myth #1: RA is just a part of aging

Some patients mistakenly assume RA is just a part of getting older, no different than graying hair. The fact is, RA affects people of all ages. While the disease typically presents between the ages of 30 and 60, it can be seen in young adults, teens, and even children.2

Myth #2: RA and osteoarthritis are virtually one and the same

Some patients conflate osteoarthritis (OA) and RA. Although both conditions involve joint pain, they are distinct types of arthritis with different causes. Whereas OA is the product of wear and tear on the joints, RA has nothing to do with how the joints age. Rather, it is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the joints and surrounding tissue.3

Myth #3: RA only affects the joints

The first symptoms of RA are typically joint pain and swelling, but the disease can affect the lungs, heart, blood vessels, and other parts of the body as it progresses. More than 50% of people with RA experience high levels of fatigue.4 Causes of fatigue include disease activity, pain, inflammation, inactivity, and poor sleep.

Myth #4: Exercise is bad for RA

People with RA who exercise often have less pain than those who don’t.5 Research shows that aerobic, resistive, and aquatic exercise reduce physical limitations and improve body function.

Myth #5: Side effects are too risky to justify medication

Long-term prescription medications may be daunting for some patients. However, the downside of refusing medications is much greater. Left unchecked, the inflammation caused by RA can result in loss of function, anemia, coronary artery disease, osteoporosis, and other serious conditions.6

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Myth #6: If you feel better, medication is no longer necessary

Just about any patient will be happy to stop taking medication, and signs of improvement can lead patients to a false sense of security. However, medications keep cells from attacking the body and ceasing taking them can lead to a resurgence of pain and structural damage.

Myth #7: There’s nothing you can do about your RA

While there is no cure for RA, targeted therapies with disease-modifying biologics can slow the progression of the disease, physical therapy can reduce pain and swelling, and mobile apps can help implement lifestyle modifications. Be sure to encourage your patients to speak up if a treatment isn’t working and ask questions about how to make their day-to-day easier.

References

  1. What is rheumatoid arthritis? Arthritis Foundation. Accessed March 27, 2019.
  2. Freeman J. RA facts: what are the latest statistics on rheumatoid arthritis? Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network. October 27, 2018. Accessed March 27, 2019.
  3. Rheumatoid arthritis. Mayo Clinic. Accessed March 1, 2019. March 27, 2019.
  4. Fighting the fatigue of RA. Arthritis Foundation. Accessed March 27, 2019.
  5. Lichtenstein K. 7 potential complications of untreated rheumatoid arthritis (RA). OnHealth. Reviewed June 21, 2017. Accessed March 27, 2019.
  6. Freeman J. RA and exercise: does exercise help with pain and inflammation? Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network. October 27, 2018. Accessed March 27, 2019.