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While rheumatoid arthritis is generally a condition associated with older patients, the truth is that it can affect people of any age, including children. 

Affecting as many as one 690,000 people in the UK, it is an autoimmune condition in which the antibodies that normally attack bacteria and viruses target the cells covering the joints, leaving them inflamed and sore.

The chemicals released in response to this inflammation cause damage to bones, cartilage, tendons and ligaments.

If left untreated, joints can become misshapen and misaligned, leading to permanent disability in the most severe cases. 

Hormones, smoking and family history are factors that make some people susceptible to rheumatoid arthritis, with women more commonly affected than men. 

Tell-tale symptoms include inflammation, stiffness, pain and fatigue.

Hands, feet and wrists and the most commonly affected parts of the body but rheumatoid arthritis affects most of the other joints as well.

It can also affect other organs such as the heart and lungs causing damage.

Early diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis

Early diagnosis is important as it can enable treatment to begin that will prevent the condition from becoming worse and minimise the risk of permanent joint damage.

While there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, treatment is available that enables most patients to go many months or even years without a flare up.

Hospital specialists commonly prescribe disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs to minimise the chances of rheumatoid arthritis becoming worse. These medications can block the effects of the chemicals released when antibodies attack the tissues around the joints.

In certain cases, biological treatments are given by injection and target the chemicals in the blood that cause the immune system to attack the joints.

Both forms of drug therapy are often used in conjunction with supportive therapies including physiotherapy, occupational therapy and podiatry. In certain cases, joint problems may require surgical treatment.

Doctors will sometimes recommend pain relief and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Steroids can also be prescribed for short-term use in certain circumstances.

It can be difficult for GPs to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis because its symptoms are similar to other conditions. A blood test can help to support a diagnosis but it is likely that your doctor will refer you to a specialist for confirmation.

Pharmacy2U is working in partnership with the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society to raise awareness of the condition.

The society has its own website – www.nras.org.uk – and is ‘working for a better life for people living with rheumatoid arthritis’. It provides support, information and advocacy for people with rheumatoid arthritis and their families, friends and carers.What you need to know about rheumatoid arthritis