It is important to first distinguish arthritis from arthrosis, because they are often confused, since both diseases affect the joints. Osteoarthritis is an excessive wear of the joint as a result of the breakdown of the articular cartilage. Arthritis is a chronic inflammation of the joints, which in rare cases can also affect internal organs.
The term arthritis summarizes inflammatory joint diseases. They can have different causes, a distinction is made between infectious arthritis (for example caused by bacteria) and non-infectious arthritis. The most common form of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis. It affects around one to two percent of all adults, depending on their age. It is one of the non-infectious arthritis: the body’s own defense (immune system) is disturbed and attacks the joints and the body’s own tissue. The cause of this has not yet been clarified.
Rheumatic diseases, popularly called “rheumatism” for short, comprise over 100 different clinical pictures, which are caused by wear (osteoarthritis), inflammation or metabolic disorders and which mainly affect the movement system. Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common rheumatic-inflammatory joint disease – i.e. caused by the immune system. It has nothing to do with mechanical wear and tear as in osteoarthritis.
In rheumatic-inflammatory diseases, a failure of the immune system creeps in unnoticed over the course of years. The immune system consists mainly of white blood cells (leukocytes) and serves to defend against viruses, bacteria, poisons and cancer cells. As a result of this error, parts of the immune system can no longer correctly distinguish between the body’s own and foreign bodies. The body’s own tissue, which the immune system is supposed to leave alone, is attacked: in rheumatoid arthritis, the inflammation predominantly affects the inner skin (synovial membrane) of joints, tendon sheaths and bursa. The inner joint skin produces the joint fluid. This serves to nourish the articular cartilage and at the same time as a lubricating substance to reduce friction on the articular surfaces.
Rheumatoid arthritis can occur suddenly, but also insidiously. The first signs are swelling, overheating, as well as morning stiffness of the joints. The complaints are usually symmetrical and often occur first on the base and middle joints of the fingers or toes as well as the wrists. However, other joints such as the knee, shoulder, hip or ankle joints and also the upper cervical spine can also be affected.
A typical course is in spurts that last for several weeks. It can lead to joint deformations up to complete joint destruction. Less often, other organs, such as lacrimal or salivary glands, lungs, heart, blood vessels and eyes are involved.
In Germany, about one percent of the population is affected by rheumatoid arthritis, women are about three times as likely as men. Rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age, even in childhood (polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis). With increasing age, the incidence of the disease also increases in both sexes. The disease usually begins in the fourth to fifth decade of life.
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