Autoimmune arthritis refers to arthritis types in which a person’s immune system attacks their body. The most common type is rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
When the immune system attacks the body, the result is inflammation in a joint. This can cause pain, stiffness, and mobility problems.
There are more than 100 types of arthritis, and different types cause different symptoms. RA and psoriatic arthritis (PsA) are among the most common types of autoimmune arthritis.
This article takes a closer look at autoimmune arthritis, identifying the common symptoms and outlining some of the treatments currently available to combat arthritis-related joint inflammation.
Although this list is by no means comprehensive, it represents some of the most common forms of autoimmune arthritis:
- RA: The most common type of autoimmune arthritis, RA usually causes swelling and pain in the hands, feet, and wrists. An estimated 1.3 million people in the United States have RA, 75% of whom are female.
- Spondyloarthritis: This is the term for a group of arthritis-related conditions that affect the spine and joints. Some common types include ankylosing spondyloarthritis, axial spondyloarthritis, reactive arthritis, PsA, and enteropathic arthritis.
- Juvenile arthritis: Juvenile arthritis affects an estimated 300,000 children in the U.S. It can cause joint pain, eye inflammation, fever, and rashes. Other names for it include juvenile idiopathic arthritis, juvenile chronic arthritis, and juvenile RA.
- Palindromic rheumatism: Palindromic rheumatism is a rare type of arthritis that causes inflammation around the joints. Palindromic arthritis often affects the areas around the fingers, wrists, and knees, causing symptoms such as pain, swelling, stiffness, and fever.
Each of these conditions can cause significant discomfort and swelling in the joints.
Some general symptoms associated with autoimmune arthritis
- joint pain
The specific symptoms vary among types of autoimmune arthritis.
For example, PsA
Experts believe that genetics can affect a person’s likelihood of developing autoimmune arthritis. However, the other risk factors for autoimmune arthritis depend on the type of arthritis.
For example, some research suggests that periodontal disease, also known as gum disease, may be associated with an
Environmental factors may also be responsible. Possible factors that could contribute to autoimmune arthritis include:
- early life exposures to toxins, such as those in cigarette smoke
A person’s sex may sometimes affect their risk level, depending on the arthritis type. For example, females are
Specialist doctors called rheumatologists treat autoimmune arthritis.
Rheumatologists study the immune system and are aware of all the available treatments. If a doctor suspects that a person has a type of autoimmune arthritis, they will usually refer them to a rheumatologist.
A doctor will first ask a person about their symptoms, including what makes their symptoms worse and what, if anything, makes them better. They may ask about other medical conditions a person has, as well as what medications they are taking.
A doctor will likely recommend a range of tests to learn more about a person’s health and find out which joints are affected.
Examples of diagnostic tests for autoimmune arthritis
- imaging scans, such as X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, and musculoskeletal ultrasounds to identify areas of joint damage
- blood tests, including red blood cell count, rheumatoid factor, antibodies to certain peptide types, and markers of inflammation, such as erythrocyte sedimentation rates and C-reactive protein (CRP) levels
- tissue samples, which doctors can use to confirm underlying conditions, such as psoriasis
However, no single test can definitively diagnose an autoimmune arthritis type. Often, diagnosis involves a person undergoing a range of tests to rule out other conditions and other types of arthritis.
Doctors will consider a person’s symptoms, the type of arthritis they have, and their overall health when recommending a treatment plan for autoimmune arthritis.
Some people with mild forms of autoimmune arthritis can benefit from taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These include ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve).
For other types of arthritis, a doctor
Examples of DMARDs include:
- sulfasalazine (Azulfidine)
- methotrexate (Rheumatrex)
- leflunomide (Arava)
- hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil)
- Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors, including baricitinib (Olumiant), tofacitinib (Xeljanz), and upadacitinib (Rinvoq)
If DMARDs are not effective in treating autoimmune arthritis, a doctor may prescribe biologic response modifiers or “biologic agents.” These medications block immune system communications that can lead to the symptoms of autoimmune arthritis.
Examples of biologic agents
- abatacept (Orencia)
- tocilizumab (Actemra)
- rituximab (Rituxan)
- tumor necrosis factor-alpha inhibitors, including etanercept (Enbrel), infliximab (Remicade), adalimumab (Humira), certolizumab pegol (Cimzia), and golimumab (Simponi)
- interleukin-17 inhibitors, including secukinumab (Cosentyx)
- interleukin-23 inhibitors, including ustekinumab (Stelara), guselkumab (Tremfya), tildrakizumab (Ilumya), and risankizumab (Skyrizi)
Sometimes, a person may take these medications in combination with DMARDs, especially methotrexate.
Medications can have side effects that cause complications on their own. DMARDs and biologics, for instance, are immunosuppressants that can leave people susceptible to infections.
In addition to medical treatments for autoimmune arthritis, a doctor will likely recommend lifestyle changes and choices that can benefit a person with an autoimmune disorder.
Examples of lifestyle approaches to managing autoimmune forms of arthritis
- Getting regular exercise: Some types of physical activity can improve the range of motion in the joints. Walking, water aerobics, and other low impact aerobic exercises are especially beneficial.
- Quitting smoking, if applicable: Smoking can worsen the symptoms of many types of autoimmune arthritis.
- Eating a well-balanced diet: A nutritious diet can help people maintain a moderate weight, putting less pressure on painful joints.
- Aiming for a regular sleep schedule: Sleep disruptions may worsen flares and other symptoms.
A person with autoimmune arthritis should also talk with a doctor about other steps they can take to improve their overall health.
The long-term effects of autoimmune arthritis can depend on the type of disease.
For example, RA can cause joint deformities that make it difficult for a person to use their hands and feet. People with RA are also at increased risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
Anyone with any type of autoimmune arthritis who experiences frequent bouts of pain and swelling may also have difficulty keeping to a regular schedule of work and socializing.
Sometimes, people with RA may experience such severe joint complications that they require surgery. Various surgical options are available, including joint repair or replacement.
Identifying and treating autoimmune arthritis as quickly as possible helps minimize any complications.
Autoimmune arthritis can have significant effects on a person’s quality of life. However, many treatments are available that can help a person with autoimmune arthritis live a healthier, happier life.
People should talk with a doctor about the best approaches to treating autoimmune arthritis and the lifestyle changes that may be beneficial.