Published August 29, 2012
More than 50 million Americans have some form of arthritis. Most forms of arthritis cause pain and swelling in your joints, places where two bones meet such as your knee or elbow.
Usually arthritis affects older people, like my mother-in-law in her 70s whose pain got so bad she eventually had hip replacement surgery. Now she's active and pain-free. That's typically osteoarthritis, which breaks down the cartilage in your joints.
But there's another type -- rheumatoid arthritis or RA -- and it can affect people when they are much younger, including young adults, teenagers and even children.
In RA, instead of cartilage around joints being worn down and causing pain, your own immune system is causing swelling and pain. Your immune cells are attacking your own body.
That's why RA is considered an "autoimmune" condition. Right now, it's a lifelong condition once it develops.
For Beth Anne Demeter of Palatine, Illinois, it began when she was just 13 and growing up in Cleveland. She had trouble straightening her knees and her small hands swelled so much they looked like sausages. Kids teased her.
Her father, a physician himself, got her to a rheumatologist and she began the best therapy available then, which was gold therapy. It was only marginally effective.
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But there's good news for people with RA. By the time Demeter got to college a new class of treatments called biologics was in development and she participated in a clinical trial.
These medicines have been revolutionary. They enable people with RA to be active.
RA can be a progressive disease. If it goes unchecked it leads to contorted hands and fingers, with pain and disability in those joints and several others.
It's a one-way trip and the name of the game is to stop joint destruction before it occurs. These newer medicines do that.
And while these powerful medicines can have side effects or even a small risk of future ailments, even lymphoma, most patients like Beth Anne say the benefit far outweighs the risk.
You can learn more about Beth Anne Demeter’s story and the latest treatments for RA in my interview with her and her doctor, rheumatologist Calvin Brown from Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
The podcast, “What Can I Do About My Rheumatoid Arthritis?” is available here.
If you have ongoing joint pain, you may want to talk with your doctor about an evaluation for RA. There are effective treatments, and their earlier use can ensure a long, active life.