The specific cause of rheumatoid arthritis has yet to be identified despite decades of medical research. While we don’t know specifically what causes rheumatoid arthritis, we do know that it is the result of an autoimmune disorder. An autoimmune disorder occurs when immune cells begin to attack the body. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the body attacks its own healthy joint tissue called the synovium. The synovium is what produces a clear liquid substance known as synovial fluid. This fluid lubricates healthy joints and gives cartilage and bones the nourishment required to remain effective and mobile.
Once rheumatoid arthritis has been triggered by the autoimmune disorder, antibodies are produced and they go on the attack. The antibodies release chemicals that cause inflammation to the synovium, inhibiting its ability to produce the synovial fluid. As less fluid is produced, the more joints become stiff and immobile.
As the synovium becomes thicker without the fluid’s lubrication, the joint’s cartilage can become destroyed, and over time weaken the connective tissue between the bones. Once the cartilage is destroyed, the ligaments that connect it to the bone also begin to weaken. This also begins to impact the tendons that connect bone to muscle.
As the ligaments and tendons weaken, they can no longer hold joints in shape as they have been stretched out. This can cause such severe loss of configuration that the joint can eventually be totally destroyed.
This entire process is what leads to the chronic suffering of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
Having established that rheumatoid arthritis is the result of an autoimmune disorder, researchers have studied what triggers the disorder and the different factors that induce it.
It is suspected that autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, are caused by a variety of conditions. These mainly include genetics, hormonal changes, lifestyle choices, environmental factors or even a combination of all.
While having a specific history of rheumatoid arthritis in your family can increase the chances of your own development of the disease, it does not always guarantee that you will or will not develop it. The degree of risk can vary quite greatly when it comes to determining what role family history plays in developing the disease. People who possess a genetic background of rheumatoid arthritis may never develop it. Conversely, some people develop rheumatoid arthritis without any known family history of it.
It has been determined that there isn’t one individual gene that causes rheumatoid arthritis. Rather researchers feel that there is a combination of genes interacting with each other that potentially leads to developing the disease.
This genetic combination can cause the development of rheumatoid arthritis early on in life. As opposed to some of the potential environmental causes that may lead to its development at a later stage in life.
Another way that genetics play a role in the potential development of rheumatoid arthritis is through genetic conditions. If you have been genetically predisposed to conditions that weaken the immune system, you could be more susceptible to viral or bacterial infections. It’s possible that this susceptibility to infections could trigger the development of autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis.
Research has shown there is a greater number of women who develop rheumatoid arthritis – almost 3 times as great. This fact leads researchers to believe that female hormones could contribute to triggering the disease. Women can develop rheumatoid arthritis anywhere between the ages of 30 and 60 years old.
It appears that maintaining healthy levels of reproductive hormones, estrogen and progesterone, can reduce the risk of triggering rheumatoid arthritis. During pregnancy and during the menstrual cycle’s postovulatory stage when reproductive hormone levels are higher, joint symptoms are reduced.
As women age, their levels of reproductive hormones decrease. Once they’ve reached and passed the age of menopause, hormone levels aren’t nearly at the same level. It is possible that this lowered hormone level is what causes the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, and why this segment of the population experiences this disease more than any others do.
As for non-genetic factors, researchers consider the possibility that obesity, smoking, and poor health in general could be potential contributing factors in developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Research has shown that many people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis had a preceding obesity condition prior to developing the disease. The link could be explained by the fact that fat cells store cytokines, which are inflammatory chemicals. The more fat cells you have, the more inflammatory chemicals your body stores.
Smoking, like obesity, puts you at greater risk for many health conditions. Smoking can have serious adverse effects on your immune system’s ability to function properly. The damage that smoking does to the body, combined with other genetic factors, could increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
While no evidence can firmly conclude the direct cause of rheumatoid arthritis due to obesity, smoking, and overall bad health, these are still prominent risk factors and should be controlled as preventative measures.
Outside of the lifestyle factors of smoking, obesity, and poor health, there are environmental factors like exposure to chemicals and pollutants. Air pollution, food and product chemicals, second-hand smoke, or insecticides are all parts of our external environment that are known to have a negative impact on our body.
Depending on the type and severity of exposure, it’s possible that these can all be contributing factors to developing autoimmune disorders – include rheumatoid arthritis. Like managing your weight and quitting smoking, avoiding exposure to toxins is another way of controlling and preventing the disease.
Sadly, past emotional or physical traumas and how the body reacts to these are also thought to perhaps contribute to the eventual development of rheumatoid arthritis. Emotional stress is shown to activate, or trigger an immune response. Certain individuals who have experienced stress or trauma, and who have a genetic predisposition to rheumatoid arthritis could trigger the onset of the disease.
Ongoing research continues to further identify the causes and risk factors of rheumatoid arthritis as well as effective treatment options. This is to ensure the eventual prevention of this painful and debilitating disease.