Rheumatoid arthritis causes 1.3 million people to cringe in pain every day. 75 percent of those are women. There's no cure, but early diagnosis and treatment can keep people moving longer. Now there's new way doctors can detect it even before the pain sets in.
"I can't remember a day that I don't hurt," says Robyn Nichols.
For 30-year-old Nichols, the pain started at just two and a half years old. She says she takes 18 different prescriptions and the arthritis is getting worse.
"I'm terrified of falling, tripping and falling 'cause I will just shatter," says Nichols.
Rheumatoid arthritis or RA happens when the body's own immune cells attack healthy tissues, causing bone to painfully scrape against bone at the joint.
"The onset of RA can be explosive. People can go to bed feeling well one night, and the next morning develop symptoms that can be very dramatic," explains rheumatologist Mary Chester Wasko.
Symptoms include joint pain, swelling, stiffness, restricted range of motion and extreme fatigue. The two main causes are genetic and environmental, but there is another possible trigger.
"Smoking, believe it or not, is actually a risk factor for the development of RA," says Marc Levesque, M.D., director of the rheumatoid arthritis center at the University of Pittsburgh.
To diagnose it, doctors use a variety of tests and x-rays. But now, a new blood test called anti CCP is giving doctors hope for early treatment.
"It turns out that many people with RA have a positive test years in advance of getting the symptoms," says Levesque.
The latest results show the blood test is correct 86 percent of the time. But, some doctors argue the RA blood markers could be confused with markers for other autoimmune diseases such as lupus, psoriasis or even a viral infection.
Still the test could give doctors the head start they need to treat RA before symptoms appear and aggressively with a combo of drugs. That gives patients the best odds of avoiding joint damage.
Although Nichols has had both of her knees replaced, and her ankles fused, she hopes advances like this one will save others the pain she's suffered.
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