Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a chronic, progressive, inflammatory autoimmune disease which predominantly affects the joints of the body.
The immune system is designed to protect the body from pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. However, in Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), the immune system mistakes healthy cells in the synovium of the joints as a foreign pathogen, and begins attacking the normal joint tissue; hence the term “auto-immune”. The synovium of the joints is the capsule that surrounds the joint which produces synovial fluid. Synovial fluid is the lubricating
fluid found in healthy joints.
The main symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are joint pain, swelling, stiffness, and diminished range of motion. RA inhibits the production of synovial fluid within the synovium of the joint causing severe inflammation. Over time, the inflammation can cause long term damage in the joints. The subsequent cartilage and bone loss leads to deformity, limited mobility, and chronic pain. Patients with RA can also experience fatigue, fever, and depression associated with severe pain and loss of mobility. Rheumatoid arthritis typically affects the joints symmetrically. The most common joints affected by RA are the joints of the hands, wrists, knees, and feet; but RA is also systemic and can attack skin, lungs, and heart.
Long-Term Damage Related to Rheumatoid Arthritis
If rheumatoid arthritis is not treated early or is not well controlled, the inflammation in the joints could lead to significant and permanent damage. According to the CDC, the common complications of RA include:
- Premature Heart Disease: People with RA are at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease which affects the heart or blood vessels, and includes life-threatening problems such as heart attack and stroke.
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: CT syndrome is a common condition in people with rheumatoid arthritis. It is caused by compression of the median nerve that controls sensation and movement in the hands. The symptoms include aching, numbness, as well as tingling in the thumbs, fingers or part of the hand.
- Systemic Inflammation: Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition which can cause inflammation to develop in other parts of the body, such as the:
-Lungs – inflammation of the lungs can lead to pulmonary fibrosis and interstitial lung disease
-Heart – inflammation of the tissue around the heart can lead to pericarditis
-Eyes – inflammation of the eyes can lead to scleritis or Sjögren’s syndrome
-Blood vessels – inflammation of the blood vessels, known as vasculitis, is the thickening, weakening, narrowing and scarring of blood vessel walls. In serious cases, it can affect blood flow to your body’s organs and tissues and can be life threatening.
- Cervical Myelopathy: Individuals with advanced RA are at increased risk of developing involvement at the top of spine known as cervical myelopathy. This condition leads to dislocation of joints at the top of the spine, which puts pressure on the spinal cord. Although uncommon, it’s a serious condition that can greatly affect mobility and lead to permanent spinal cord damage if not treated quickly with surgery.
How Can Medical Marijuana Help Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Medical Marijuana is a useful tool in the medical management of Rheumatoid Arthritis. Numerous studies reveal that cannabinoids may be beneficial in the management of pain and inflammation associated with RA. Marijuana produces anti-inflammatory effects by activating CB 2 cannabinoid receptors which decrease cytokine production and modulates immune cell mobilization. Marijuana may also be useful in treating the depression and anxiety frequently experienced by patients with RA.