Doctors are warning against late diagnosis and delayed treatment for patients with chronic joint pain or rheumatoid arthritis, as doing so could reduce their quality of life and significantly worsen outcomes. “The autoimmune nature of the disease means that the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks the joints of patients” explained Dr Paul Macnamara, Consultant Orthopaedics, Medcare Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital. “This causes inflammation resulting in swelling and pain in and around the joints”.
If this inflammation goes unchecked for a long period of time, it can cause significant cartilage damage – eventually making the joints loose and unstable, implicating pain and a lack of mobility. “This serious join damage cannot be reversed, and because it can often occur very early on in the disease, it is incredibly important to get an early diagnosis and begin treatment early on in the disease” said Dr Macnamara.
This disease commonly affects the joints of the hands, feet, wrists, elbows, knees and ankles, and will often affect symmetrical joints – so if one hand is affected, most likely, it will affect the other too. Patients often complain of morning stiffness for 30 minutes or longer where movement is difficult. Ongoing inflammation can affect a wide variety of organs such as the eyes, mouth, skin, and blood vessels.
Rheumatoid arthritis most commonly begins between the ages of 30 and 60 in women and begins later in life in male patients. “It can be an invisible disease, so it can be difficult to grasp the debilitating nature of the condition. Patients often look normal on the outside, but are hiding away feelings of pain, anxiety and depression due to rheumatoid arthritis. It can extremely painful for patients to even get out of bed and get dressed in the morning” continued Dr Macnamara.
There can be many very serious complications associated with rheumatoid arthritis. This disease increases patients’ risk of developing osteoporosis, which means bones are more prone to fracture, and is also a common complication of medication patients may be prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis. If rheumatoid arthritis manifests in the wrists, the inflammation can compress nerves that serve the hand and fingers causing carpal tunnel syndrome.
Alarmingly, rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease, and if it progresses, it can quickly affect the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. The inflammation associated with the disease can increase the risk of blocked arteries and shortness of breath.
“Often times, patients put off seeing a doctor for joint pain as they mistakenly think it is a minor issue, but there can be very serious consequences for delaying treatment. In clinical practice, I have seen delays of up to 12 months in initial diagnosis as patients try and avoid the stigma of diagnosis. But this is a real danger with these types of conditions” explained Dr Macnamara. “But there are many effective treatment options available. I urge patients to see a doctor as soon as they recognise symptoms of chronic joint pain, so treatment can be initiated in a timely fashion”.