When the word arthritis is mentioned, you might think of older people. Gnarled hands and people unable to open a pill bottle or walk without a cane may come to mind.
Think again. It’s true that one form of arthritis, osteoarthritis, is usually a part of the aging process. However, another form, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), can begin in your 20s. It is also much more common among women. The chance of getting RA in your 20s is 1 in 714 for women and 1 in 2,778 for men in the U.S. Nationally, 1.3 million people have RA across all age groups.
What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
RA is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and swelling of the joints and tissues. It can manifest as swelling and soreness around the wrists or fingers. It can also be sudden and manifest as difficulty in moving, such as inability to get out of bed due to stiffness and soreness. While it most frequent affects the wrists, fingers, knees and ankles, it can also affect the skin and eyes and internal organs such as the lungs.
What causes RA? Because it is an autoimmune disease, it is passed down through families. Smoking can increase your vulnerability to the disease if you have other susceptibilities.
What Is the Treatment?
If you have any of the symptoms of RA, or are stiff and sore for no reason, it is a good idea to go to a specialist in orthopedic diseases. There are a number of tests that will help determine whether the diagnosis is RA.
Although RA is not curable, it can be managed with anti-inflammatory medications, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs and steroids. It is important to stay in touch with medical professionals, since some medications have side effects such as liver damage, weight gain and increased vulnerability to infection.
Many doctors believe that RA that appears in one’s 20s must be managed aggressively, since the disease has comparatively more years to attack joints and internal organs.
It is also a good idea to exercise frequently in a way that keeps weight off your joints, such as swimming. The goal should be overall health and preservation of joint function.
Living With RA
Many people diagnosed with RA in their 20s are concerned because the years of young adulthood include major life events that take time and energy: establishing oneself in a career, buying a house and starting a family.
Although RA can be a drain on energy and make some of the activities of daily life difficult, it is important to maintain perspective. People can live full lives with RA. Let friends and family know what you can do and what you can’t, and what needs to be modified for you to participate. A two-mile hike on flat ground may be possible on a Saturday. A 15-mile hike uphill may not.
Pregnancy with RA can be managed. Some women experience full remission of symptoms when they are pregnant. Others may experience flare-ups of RA during pregnancy.
It is important to establish a support network. Some support groups for people with RA have been established online and are a valuable link to a community with ideas and experience with the disease.
If you have any symptoms that might be RA, it is important to get them checked out. A physician can help you manage the disease with medication and advise you on activities and support groups.