Back in the olden days (1986), when I was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, it never occurred to my 31-year-old self that there might be other types of RA than the one I had.
And why should it? I was surprised enough to learn that I had RA at all: a disease that wasn’t caused by some outside marauder, like a virus or bacteria, but by my own autoimmune system mistaking my joints for viruses or bacteria.
All I really understood was that I’d somehow gotten a disease that I’d always associated with old people and the commercials for iron pills and creams for sore joints and muscles I’d seen as a child while watching The Lawrence Welk Show at my grandma’s house.
And, from recent experience, I knew that RA could be extremely painful. Sometimes the affected joints hurt so badly they impaired my ability to work—and everything else. A flared hand could keep me from taking notes and typing, an integral part of my job. A flared shoulder made it really hard to wash and fix my hair and get dressed. And depending on which shoulder or foot the RA bit into, driving my stick-shift car became a huge challenge, too.
Still, I was lucky. Prior to making a final diagnosis, my doctor ordered a blood test. He was looking for a protein called the Rh factor, a clear indicator of rheumatoid arthritis. He found it. I was seropositive for RA.
My doctor explained the basics: RA strikes at any age. It can be treated, but it’s incurable. RA attacks more than the joints, too, he said. It can damage soft tissues like the heart, the lungs, the eyes and even the veins, and while remissions occur, they’re rare. I’d have RA the rest of my life.
Unfortunately, many people have RA, but don’t show the Rh factor in their blood. They’re seronegative, and it makes diagnosing the disease much more difficult. Because there are so many diseases, syndromes, conditions that can mimic RA (such as fibromyalgia, neuropathy and Lyme disease), doctors sometimes rule RA out if they don’t find the Rh factor in the patient’s blood. It can take a long time to get a diagnosis—and finally, treatment.
Doctors now believe that the earlier in the course of the disease a solid diagnosis can be made, the more likely it will be RA medications—DMARDS in both their original and biologic forms, along with NSAIDs—can slow or even arrest the disease’s progression, preventing as much joint damage and deformation as possible.
There are several other forms of rheumatoid arthritis: ankylosing spondelitis, polymyalgia rheumatica and juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Click www.healthline.com/health-slideshow/types-rheumatoid-arthritis to learn more about them.