How to Prevent and Treat Rheumatoid Arthritis

A person bending down and lifting their right foot up off the ground
Rheumatoid arthritis in your feet and ankles can be painful and debilitating. However, there are various ways to treat the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and to prevent it if you are at risk.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease in which your body attacks the linings of your joints, resulting in pain and swelling. Whereas a healthy immune system protects your body from sickness and infection, one with rheumatoid arthritis attacks healthy joint tissue. This autoimmune disease often targets the hands, knees or ankles on both sides of the body. In some cases, rheumatoid arthritis damages other body parts, such as the heart, lungs, blood vessels, skin and eyes.    

What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Unfortunately, doctors and researchers are not sure what causes rheumatoid arthritis. Some believe that people who develop rheumatoid arthritis have certain genes that respond to environmental triggers — bacteria, a virus or physical and emotional stress — that precipitate the disease.  

Who Is at Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Certain genetic and lifestyle factors may increase your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. While genetic factors are nonmodifiable, you can reverse lifestyle factors to help decrease your risk.
  • Age: Rheumatoid arthritis can begin at any age but commonly starts in middle age.
  • Sex: Females are more likely than males to develop rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Family history: You may have a greater chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis if a family member has it.
  • Smoking: Smoking cigarettes puts you at risk of rheumatoid arthritis, particularly if you’re genetically predisposed. Smoking may also intensify the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Weight: People who are overweight are more susceptible to developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include:
  • Painful, swollen joints that are warm to the touch
  • Joint stiffness that may be worse in the morning and after periods of inactivity
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
Rheumatoid arthritis often starts in small joints, such as the knuckles of your hands and feet. As it progresses, symptoms may spread to larger joints — ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Some people who have rheumatoid arthritis experience symptoms in other body parts, such as:
  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Kidneys
  • Blood vessels
  • Bone marrow
  • Nerves
  • Skin
  • Eyes
  • Salivary glands
Your symptoms won’t necessarily be constant and can fluctuate in severity. Rheumatoid arthritis features flares of autoimmune activity and periods of relative calm.  

Complications of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Having rheumatoid arthritis can put you at risk of developing other conditions, including:
  • Heart problems: Rheumatoid arthritis can increase your risk of developing narrow, hardened arteries and a swollen pericardium, the sac surrounding your heart.
  • Lung disease: Those with rheumatoid arthritis are at greater risk of lung tissue swelling and scarring, which can cause shortness of breath.
  • Osteoporosis: Rheumatoid arthritis and certain medications used to treat it can put you at risk of developing osteoarthritis.
  • Lymphoma: Rheumatoid arthritis can increase your risk of lymphoma, blood cancer that originates in the lymphatic system.
  • Rheumatoid nodules: Rheumatoid nodules are hard lumps that can form anywhere in the body but are common in pressure points like the elbows.
  • Sjogren’s syndrome: People with rheumatoid arthritis are prone to Sjogren’s syndrome, which causes dry eyes and mouth.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome: Inflammation in the wrist from rheumatoid arthritis can compress the nerve that serves most of the hand, leading to carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Infections: Rheumatoid arthritis and many medications used to treat it can weaken your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to other sicknesses.

Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis in Your Foot

While rheumatoid arthritis isn’t curable, there are treatment options that can help you manage your symptoms. Nonsurgical treatments for rheumatoid arthritis in the foot include:
  • Rest: It’s wise to limit or avoid activities that worsen your pain. However, you can still be physically active. Lower-impact exercises such as swimming, biking and elliptical training put minimal pressure on the feet. 
  • Ice: Ice can help reduce inflammation and pain in your foot. Place an ice pack over the most painful part of your foot for about 20 minutes, three to four times daily. 
  • Orthotic shoe inserts: Orthotics are soft shoe inserts that can make standing and walking more comfortable by decreasing pressure on the bones in your foot. Orthotics are most helpful for people with rheumatoid arthritis symptoms in the middle or front of the foot.  
  • Braces: An ankle brace reinforces the joints in the back of the foot and ankle, helping to ease mild to moderate pain. 
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy can help improve joint function by strengthening and stretching your foot and ankle joints. In addition to improving your ability to walk and stay active, physical therapy can also help decrease the risk of future foot deformities. 
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: Medications such as naproxen or ibuprofen can help reduce swelling and discomfort in your joints.
  • Steroid injections: Steroids are medications that help reduce swelling and pain when injected into your joints. It’s best to use steroid injections sparingly and for short-term treatment because repeated injections can further damage the soft tissues in your foot.
If your symptoms don’t ease with nonsurgical treatments and the cartilage in your foot becomes severely damaged, your doctor may suggest surgery. Below are a few common foot and ankle procedures:
  • Fusion: This procedure fuses two bones with plastic or metal pins, eliminating the joint altogether.
  • Resection: This procedure creates more space in the joint by removing some of the bone and cartilage. 
  • Joint replacement: This procedure uses man-made implants to replace the damaged joint. 

How to Prevent Rheumatoid Arthritis in Your Foot

While rheumatoid arthritis isn’t preventable, you can take the following steps to lower your risk.
  • Avoid smoking: Cigarette smoking is a risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Limit alcohol: Drinking alcohol in moderation has been linked to a lower rheumatoid arthritis risk in women.
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight: As obesity is a risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis, maintaining a healthy weight can help lower your risk. 
  • Stay active: Regular exercise can improve your overall health and help prevent chronic disease. 
  • Increase fish intake: The nutrients in fish can help lower rheumatoid arthritis risk
  • Take early action: Pinpointing and treating rheumatoid arthritis early with anti-inflammatory medications are vital to preventing severe joint and organ damage.  

Find Rheumatoid Arthritis Relief at Foot & Ankle Surgical Associates

Rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t have to rule your life. Foot & Ankle Surgical Associates offers many nonsurgical and surgical treatments for rheumatoid arthritis to help you get back to the life you deserve. Call 360-754-FEET or fill out a contact form today to speak with our expert staff about your condition.

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