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COPD and Rheumatoid Arthritis: Is There a Connection?

Content provided by: Better Medicine from Healthgrades

If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you know it. You probably have painful, swollen joints in your hands, knees, or feet, along with other symptoms. Rheumatoid arthritis and COPD sometimes occur together. And they have something in common—smoking. Smoking brings a higher risk for both conditions.

Q: What is RA?

A: Rheumatoid arthritis usually begins between ages 25 and 50. The hallmark of RA is inflammation in the joints. This makes them swell and hurt. The inflammation starts when antibodies produced by the immune system attack the joints for unknown reasons. Many people with RA have an antibody called rheumatoid factor (RF) in their blood. A person with high RF levels may have especially severe symptoms. The symptoms may come and go or occur most of the time.

Q: What causes RA?

A: Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by several factors. A person’s genes play a role. Bacterial or viral infections and hormones may be involved. Toxic compounds in cigarette smoke affect the immune system. This is one reason why smoking is strongly linked to a higher risk for RA.

Q: How can you fight symptoms of RA?

A: If you have RA, you can take steps to feel better. These suggestions from the American Academy of Family Physicians and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases can also help you manage your COPD:

• Exercise regularly. Gentle exercise, like walking or mild water aerobics, strengthens the muscles around joints and preserves joint mobility. And it keeps your lungs more fit. Exercise can help you sleep better and reduce pain. Be sure to balance activity and rest, so you don’t overdo it.

• Manage stress. Having RA is stressful, thanks to the pain and the need to limit activity. It’s easy to feel frustrated, depressed, or anxious. To cope better with having both RA and COPD, learn relaxation techniques, communicate how you’re feeling to your doctor, and consider joining a support group.

• Lose weight if you’re overweight. Taking off a few extra pounds takes stress off of your joints and lungs.

• Try some gizmos. To reduce joint stress—and avoid shortness of breath—use tools such as zipper pullers, grabbing tools, long-handled shoe horns, and devices that help you get up from a chair or the toilet.

Having RA isn’t easy, especially when you have COPD, too. So don’t try to do it alone. For advice and information about support groups, call your local Arthritis Foundation office or visit

Medical Reviewer: Chris Garvey Last Annual Review Date: 2011-11-02 Copyright: © 2000-2010 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

Reference: Arthritis section on Better Medicine