Rheumatoid Arthritis Awareness Week: 5 myths about the autoimmune disease everyone needs to stop believing

It isn’t just aching joints, and it can affect people of any age. Lisa Salmon busts some common myths about rheumatoid arthritis.

Lisa Salmon
Monday 12 September 2022 15:45 BST
What exactly is rheumatoid arthritis? (Alamy/PA)
What exactly is rheumatoid arthritis? (Alamy/PA)

It’s easy to dismiss rheumatoid arthritis as an almost-inevitable part of ageing. But the fact is, rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, isn’t connected to ageing, and is an often very misunderstood condition.

That’s the message from the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS; nras.org.uk), which is using this Rheumatoid Arthritis Awareness Week (September 12-17) to highlight the many myths surrounding the disease, which, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t just affect the joints.

As the NRAS points out, RA is a systemic condition which can affect the body all over. Although joint pain is the most common symptom, it can also affect organs – including the eyes – as well as the nerves, blood vessels and muscles and cause widespread problems such as fatigue and flu-like symptoms. Other issues can also develop due to RA – like vasculitis, which occurs when blood vessels become swollen.

“This year, RA Awareness Week is looking to dispel the myths that surround rheumatoid arthritis, a hidden condition that is quite misunderstood,” says Stuart Munday, director of marketing at the NRAS.

“The RA community, their families and carers and healthcare professionals are only too aware of the misconceptions people have about inflammatory arthritis, which is why we’ve created the #RAFactOrFiction quiz to share with others and spread awareness.”

So what are some of those myths? Here are five things about rheumatoid arthritis everyone needs to stop believing…

1. Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by wear and tear on the joints

Another common type of arthritis – osteoarthritis – is caused by joint wear and tear and is associated with ageing. But RA is different and occurs when the immune system attacks the lining of the joints, causing pain, swelling and stiffness.

“RA is an autoimmune condition that’s a result of the immune system responding inappropriately,” explains Munday. “The immune system doesn’t know when to stop doing its job so mistakenly attacks the synovial membrane around the joints, causing pain and swelling, and can also affect other organs.”

2. Only older people get rheumatoid arthritis

Although it’s got a different name, children can get a form of inflammatory arthritis similar to rheumatoid arthritis, known as juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA). During adulthood, RA can potentially affect people of all ages.

As Munday says: “The most common age for people to develop RA is between 40 and 60, or a bit older for men. People can get it at any age and there are other forms of inflammatory arthritis, but RA is the most common.”

3. Rheumatoid arthritis is more common in men

This isn’t true. In fact, it’s believed RA impacts roughly two to three times more women than men, says Munday.

4. Only humans get rheumatoid arthritis 

Pets like cats and dogs can get a form of arthritis called immune-mediated polyarthritis (IMPA). Munday says: “Studies have shown that certain animals can be affected by immune-mediated polyarthritis (IMPA). RA is a form of IMPA in people.”

5. Smoking doesn’t affect it

Smoking can damage health in many different ways, and one of them is by increasing the risk of RA. “Smoking can potentially double the chances of developing RA,” stresses Munday. “Once diagnosed, if someone continues to smoke, it can reduce the effectiveness of medication by up to 50%, leading to increased joint pain and inflammation.”

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