What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
In rheumatoid arthritis, the body's immune system produces antibodies that fight against healthy cells and tissues resulting in chronic inflammation (more specifically, the joints). For some people, the chronic inflammation can lead to the destruction of cartilage, bone and ligaments, but studies have shown that the inflammation doesn't stop at the joints. The lungs can also be subject to chronic inflammation and other conditions in conjunction with inflammation of the joints.
Currently in the United States, approximately 1.3 million people have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. It is three times more common in women than in men, but seems to affect all races equally. The disease can strike at any age, but usually starts between the ages of 40 and 60. It sometimes runs in families.
The Link between RA and the Lungs
Preliminary results of a study of 603 patients with rheumatoid arthritis over 14 years presented at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting on November 11, 2006, showed that there is, indeed, a connection to the lungs. It showed that the longer a patient had been dealing with rheumatoid arthritis, the increased likelihood there was of that patient developing obstructive lung disease (OLD) or diffuse parenchymal infiltrative lung disease (DPILD). The rates were (respectively): 10 years: 4.1 percent and 7.2 percent; 20 years: 9.5 percent and 15.5 percent; 30 years: 15.5 percent and 22.4 percent.
The most common lung conditions that manifest in patients with rheumatoid arthritis are interstitial lung disease and pleural effusion. Those, and other conditions, are described below:
Rheumatoid Nodules: These are small lumps that do not directly affect a person's ability to breathe; it is the only pulmonary involvement that is specifically related to the arthritis. They can, however, lead to pleural effusion, pneumothorax, coughing up blood, secondary infection, and communication between the bronchial airway and pleural space (bronchopulmonary fistula).