I thought it would be useful to provide some basic info about this superfun illness of mine (and approximately 1.3 million other people in the U.S.) called Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).
RA is a chronic, autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the synovial lining of joints around the body-from your jaw all the way down to your tiny toe joints. If you want to find out more anatomical/medical info on exactly how the disease works on your joints, click here to read more about it.
A lot of people, especially older people, have arthritis, but the kind they are referring to is osteoarthritis, which is caused when cartilage breaks down between bones, thereby causing pain and swelling. RA is different in that it is a systemic disease caused when the immune system goes haywire and goes to work on your own body tissues, mistakenly thinking they don't belong to you.
In a way, it's kind of like your immune system (ok, my immune system) is having an identity crisis. Some books and people use phrases like 'your immune system is attacking you,' and that is one way to look at it, but I don't enjoy thinking about my immune system intentionally launching a series of coordinated attacks to take me down and render all my joints unusable, because frankly, my immune system is, last time I checked, a part of me, and that idea kind of sucks and feels hostile.
I prefer to think about it as my immune system being an overachiever. It's producing too much of what is normally a good thing (one little thing in particular called tumor necrosis factor (TNF), which is part of the body's regular inflammatory response). All this extra stuff ends up causing harm in the end, kind of like a 'too many cooks in the kitchen' kind of thing, where really, some of them just need to shut up and get the hell out so dinner can be made.
There is a lot of thought and theory about what causes RA, but honestly, you aren't going to find me spending too much time on this one. Doctors and researchers are plugging away trying to better understand the immune system and what causes it to go haywire and run amok. They know there is a genetic factor for some people, but not in others; they know there seems to be an environmental factor, and that the nervous system plays a big role. The long and short of it, though, is that, really, in the end, they don't know jack about why one person gets it and another doesn't.
It may seem strange to some, but I haven't spent a lot of time wondering what triggered my immune system to go all type A on me, and that is because I don't see the point or the payoff. The fact is, I have RA, and I can't un-have it. Finding out what triggered it won't cure me. Sadly, right now, there isn't a cure, but there are some kickass new meds that make a big difference for a lot of people, and a host of other alternative therapies and practices that help with managing the pain, fatigue and other symptoms, and give you a lot of good tools to better take care of yourself, and that, my dears, is where I'm putting my energy.