Symptoms and Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis in Seniors


Aging is a process. Oftentimes, seniors make note of subtle physical changes here and there and adjust accordingly. Many choose the protection of a medical alert system for health and safety reasons.

At some point little aches and pains start, usually in the joints. The CDC reports that about one in every four adults has some form of arthritis, and the rate of arthritis goes up with age; while almost a third of those between the ages of 45 - 64 reported an arthritis diagnosis, that number increased to almost 50% of elderly individuals aged 65 and older[1].

But what happens when your body starts attacking itself? Autoimmune diseases can appear with little to no warning and wreak havoc on senior health. One of those autoimmune diseases is rheumatoid arthritis.

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

According to the CDC, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is “an autoimmune and inflammatory disease, which means that your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake, causing inflammation (painful swelling) in the affected parts of the body.”

While rheumatoid arthritis usually starts out in the lining of your joints, it can appear in other areas, such as your skin, eyes, heart, blood vessels, lungs, kidneys, and even salivary glands.

How does that happen? The inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis that makes your joints tender and painful can extend to other parts of the body. That inflammation can lead to damage, and even physical disabilities. The Mayo Clinic says that about 40% of those with rheumatoid arthritis experience the disease somewhere other than the joints.

The first signs of rheumatoid arthritis might seem like the typical aches and pains of getting older. However, it quickly becomes more severe than what you might be accustomed to feeling. As the body attacks the lining of the joints, you might experience the following:

·         Joints that are tender, swollen, and warm to the touch

·         Stiffness in the joints that is worse in the morning or after being inactive for a while

·         General feelings of malaise, including fever, loss of appetite, and fatigue

You usually feel the pain of rheumatoid arthritis in the smaller joints first, such as the joints where your fingers attach to your hand and your toes attach to your feet. It usually occurs in both hands or both feet, not just on one side. Over time the pain can expand to include the wrists, elbows, shoulders, ankles, knees, and hips.

In addition to these problems, RA might also lead to weight loss, fever, weakness, and fatigue or tiredness[2].

Interestingly, the pain of rheumatoid arthritis might not be present all the time. There might be times when you feel quite well as the swelling and pain fades – this is called remission. Then there are other times when the disease comes back with a vengeance – that’s known as a flare. Your body might go back and forth between remission and flares, but over time the condition gets worse, as the swelling begins to deform the joints and make them shift out of place.

When the joints begin to shift out of place, it can become difficult to do everyday things, including walking across a room. But exercise can be good for those who have RA. What’s the solution? As your risk of falling increases, being prepared to reach out for help immediately if you do fall is the key to keeping your peace of mind and the confidence you need to keep moving. A medical alert pendant or wristband on your body at all times gives you that opportunity to reach out for help at the touch of a button. If you don’t have one yet, it’s a great idea to consider.

What Puts You at Risk for Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Since rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, no one knows for sure what causes it. There is likely a genetic component to any autoimmune disease, but scientists haven’t pinpointed it yet. They do know, however, that there are certain things that can put you at higher risk.

Women are more likely than men to develop the condition, and those with a family history have an increased risk. Smoking and carrying excess weight also seem to contribute to developing rheumatoid arthritis, and it tends to be more severe in those who smoke[3]. If you are a woman who has never given birth, you are at higher risk. Exposure to certain toxins early in life, such as cigarette smoke, and living in a low income household as a child also boost your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis[4].

What is Elderly Onset Rheumatoid Arthritis?

RA usually shows up by age 50, but sometimes it starts between the ages of 60 and 65. That’s called elderly onset rheumatoid arthritis, or EORA. About one-third of those who develop RA do so as an elderly person. When it happens, it’s sometimes called acute onset, because it comes on very quickly instead of gradually over time. Unlike the younger onset of RA, the elderly-onset usually occurs in the larger joints, such as the shoulder. The good news is that it’s usually less severe. The bad news is that treatment might not be as straightforward, as many of the medications often given for RA – such as corticosteroids – can interfere with other medications or chronic conditions more common among the elderly[5].

Is it Rheumatoid Arthritis or Osteoarthritis?

It might be tough to tell RA and osteoarthritis apart, as both conditions affect the joints. While RA is an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints and leads to inflammation, eventually destroying the lining of the joint and causing deformities, osteoarthritis (OA) is caused by wear and tear of the cartilage that protects the ends of the bones. While rheumatoid arthritis might attack several joints at the same time, it’s possible to have osteoarthritis in only one joint or a few. RA and OA are the two most common types of joint diseases today[6]. As you might imagine, treatment for each disease is different.

Regardless of the type of arthritis you have, it’s a sure bet you’re going to be in some level of pain from the condition. And when you’re in pain, you tend to do things a little differently. If RA is affecting your feet, ankles, knees or hips, you might adjust your stride to better handle the discomfort the condition can cause. But when you do that, you wind up with an unusual gait, and that can easily lead to falls. Protect yourself from the consequences of falling down by choosing an affordable Alert1 personal emergency response solution today. These emergency button alarms summon fast help whenever it is needed and can cost less than a dollar a day.

Treatment for RA

Since rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, there is no cure yet. But there are excellent treatments that can ease the symptoms and even result in remission. It is vitally important to begin treatment as early as possible for the best results. Your doctor might opt for the following[7]:

·         NSAIDs, such as Advil or Aleve, can be purchased over the counter to help alleviate pain.

·         Corticosteroids, such as prednisone, can reduce inflammation and slow the damage. However, this is often used to relive symptoms quickly, and isn’t recommended for use long-term.

·         Certain drugs, known as DMARDs, slow the progression of the disease. There are older versions of this drug, such as methotrexate and sulfasalazine. There are also newer ones, known as biologic agents, such as rituximab or adalimumab. Targeted DMARDs are also available if the first two lines of defense don’t work well for you.

·         Physical and occupational therapy can help seniors exercise properly to keep joints flexible.

·         If your joints are severely damaged, your doctor might recommend surgery to repair or replace the joint. This typically happens only when the disease has progressed for many years and medications don’t work.

There are things you can do at home to manage symptoms and make it easier to get around.

·         Get regular exercise. Talk to your doctor about how to best exercise for your situation. In most cases, you’ll want something low-impact, like walking or water aerobics. Tai chi might be recommended as well.

·         Use heat or cold. Cold compresses can dull the sensation of pain and reduce swelling, while heated compresses can ease pain and relax tense muscles.

·         Focus on relaxation. Medication, deep breathing, guided imagery, and muscle relaxation techniques can help control the pain you’re feeling.

·         Certain supplements. Fish oil and some plant oils, such as that of black currant, have shown promise. However, you should never take a supplement without asking the doctor first.

·         Use assistive devices. As rheumatoid arthritis advances, it can become difficult to do things you once took for granted, such as buttoning a shirt or chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Devices that help you go about daily life might include utensils with unique hand grips, long-handled brushes, buttonhooks, clothing that uses Velcro rather than snaps, and many other options. Medical supply catalogs can provide a wealth of ideas.

·         Get support. Depression and anxiety are common as RA begins to affect daily life. Get in touch with others who are going through the same issues. Connecting online is a great way to find those who can support you.

Finally, be prepared for the flares, as well as the medication you might take for them. Rheumatoid arthritis itself can make some feel weak. The medications, especially those for pain, might make you feel dizzy or fatigued. To stay safe, consider a medical alert device from Alert1. Choosing a medical alert system with fall detection is one of the best decisions seniors can make when dealing with any medical condition, as it helps to prepare for the unexpected and ensures that fast help is always just a button press away.