If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you should be aware of other health problems that are associated with the autoimmune disorder. Why the higher risks of certain illnesses? Doctors aren’t sure about all the exact reasons, but it may be caused by RA-related inflammation or RA treatments – or they may occur at higher rates for unknown reasons. But regardless of the exact cause, it’s important to note that most related conditions can be prevented or treated.
The top illnesses and symptoms you should be on the lookout for include:
RA can cause bone thinning and osteoporosis (which increases the risk of bone fractures), as can the inflammation-fighting corticosteroids used to treat it.
In addition, people with RA often cut back on activity due to pain, which can accelerate loss of bone and muscle mass, says Guy Fiocco, MD, assistant professor of internal medicine at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, in Temple.
What to do: Have regular bone-density scans and talk to your doctor about bone-strengthening medications and exercise. Also, get enough calcium and vitamin D, Dr. Fiocco says.
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Heart disease and stroke
People with RA have about double the heart-disease risk as their same-age peers.
“Rheumatoid arthritis is considered equal to other [heart-disease] risk factors, such as diabetes, hypertension, increased lipids, smoking, and family history,” Dr. Fiocco says. “It’s at least as important as the other risk factors for premature heart disease and stroke.”
What to do: RA-related inflammation is thought to be the reason why, although some RA medications can contribute to the risk. People with RA should make an extra effort to eat heart-healthy food, manage other risk factors (like avoiding smoking), and monitor cholesterol and blood pressure.
Suddenly in the news because of Venus William’s recently disclosure that she suffers from the condition, Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease that attacks the tear and salivary glands, causing dry eyes and mouth. It can arise on its own or as an added complication of rheumatoid arthritis.
What to do: Unfortunately, there’s no treatment for Sjögren’s, which can lead to vision problems and tooth decay because of the lack of saliva. Moisturizing eye drops, good dental hygiene, and drinking water can help prevent these problems. Prescription drugs such as cevimeline (Evoxac) and pilocarpine (Salagen) can increase the production of saliva and tears. In severe cases, minor surgery can relieve dryness in the eyes.
“The one cancer that’s definitely been linked to RA is non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” Dr. Fiocco says.
RA patients have a two to four times higher risk than people without RA. Other blood cancers, such as leukemia and other forms of lymphoma, as well as lung cancer and melanoma, may also be a problem. Not only is the disease itself a culprit, but some drugs are too.
In fact, methotrexate (Trexall) and antitumor necrosis factor drugs such as adalimumab (Humira), etanercept (Enbrel), and infliximab (Remicade) carry a warning about increased lymphoma risk. But the benefits may still outweigh the risk, given that the risk is low overall.
What to do: Ensure that you’re getting regular doctor check-ups and ask your doctor what more you can do to stay healthy.