Autoimmune System Breakdown

As we have mentioned in previous posts, arthritis is a complex disease of the joints. There are over 100 musculoskeletal disorders or conditions — that destroy joints, bones, muscles, cartilage and other connective tissues — that are categorized as arthritis. One specific case is rheumatoid arthritis, which is an inflammatory arthritis and an autoimmune disease.

It is estimated that over 1.3 million people, or almost 1 percent of the nation’s adult population in the United States, suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. And there appears to be a gender bias: nearly three times as many women as men suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. You may have an elderly family member who is a current sufferer.

In a healthy immune system, our body protects itself by attacking foreign cells such as viruses and bacteria. Unfortunately, those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis have their bodily protection system instead attacking the body’s own tissues. The immune system attacks the thin membrane that lines our joints (called the synovium), which causes a fluid build-up leading to inflammation and pain in the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis can occur throughout the body — think elbows, wrists, knees, etc.

There is no known cause, although most scientists think it a combination of your genetic make-up and environmental factors. Researchers have identified certain genes that evidence a high probability of developing rheumatoid arthritis. These genes are actually associated with the immune system. However, not all people with these genes develop rheumatoid arthritis and not all people with the disease have these genes. So nothing provides any absolute certainty. Research is also focused on various infectious agents, such as certain bacteria or viruses. Again, some of these infectious agents may trigger the disease in someone with a genetic propensity for it.

Environmentally, there is evidence that draws a link between body’s response to stressful events (physical or emotional trauma) and rheumatoid arthritis. Smoking, also, may play a role. Smoking not only boosts the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis among people with a specific gene, it can also increase the disease’s severity and reduce the effectiveness of treatment.