Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Quiet Joints the No One Ever Knows

 One of the misconceptions commonly faced by people who suffer from autoimmune arthritis is that it is exactly the same as osteoarthritis, the wear-and-tear form of arthritis which mostly affects people in old age. The fact is that autoimmune arthritis is a systemic disease which causes your autoimmune system to attack and destroy your joints; it's not known what causes it, but it certainly isn't related to wear-and-tear. The mechanism of attack is different too-- autoimmune arthritis causes blood to flood the area and cause a lot of swelling, rather than the mechanical rubbing of cartilage caused by osteoarthritis.

Something that many people don't realize about autoimmune arthritis is that it isn't picky where it will take up shop during a flare. Technically, it can affect even non-articular organs, like your heart and lungs, but it has a preference for joints. Any joint will do. Of course autoimmune arthritis affects the joints that are commonly attacked by osteoarthritis, like knees, hips, and hands, but it can also manifest itself in joints that are more exotic. It can manifest in joints most people don't know even exist.

Here are some out-of-the-way joints that can be affected by autoimmune arthritis:

Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ). 

Anatomy of TMJ. Source.
When you meet with a friend to go out for dinner and chat, you might not realize that there's a joint working overtime: the jaw (or TMJ).  Talking, chewing and brushing your teeth are all very basic, necessary life-tasks that require motion in your TMJ. They all become very difficult to do when arthritis flares in these joints. When inflammation sets in, a person can experience clicking, popping, and locking of the jaw, as well as intense pain.

Sternocostal joints. 
Anatomy of the Rib Cage. (It swells where blue meets yellow). Source.

Generally, we tend to think of our rib-cage as being a pretty solid and immobile, but there are actually several joints that help facilitate twisting, turning, and the in-and-out motions necessary for breathing. In fact, these are some of the most-used joints in the human body which never get a break from moving since we must continue breathing throughout the night, while most joints get a chance to rest. Unfortunately, it's a playground for autoimmune arthritis. Inflammation of the sternocostal joints is called Tietze Syndrome. (When inflammation isn't remarkable, the term costochondritis is often used). Sufferers experience extreme pain and difficulty breathing, wearing a bra, or moving their torsos.

Inner Ear. 
Anatomy of the Human Ear. Source

Some people may be surprised to learn that our hearing is actually controlled by the motion of joints located in our ears. Very simply, the bones in our ears get hit with wavelengths from the things around us and clang together like tuning forks, vibrating noise signals into the brain. So when the joints in your ear start getting attacked by your immune system and swelling up, the tuning forks don't have room to vibrate and your hearing can run amok. Inner ear swelling can also cause tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and balance problems. This condition is sometimes referred to as Autoimmune Inner Ear Disease

Anatomy of the Throat. Source.
The process of speaking takes places when we make our vocal chords vibrate together. What facilitates this vibration? You guessed it, a joint. The cricoarytenoid joint, to be specific. In a healthy throat, the cricoarytenoid joint helps make the vocal cords move up, down, and together, which is what allows us to change the pitch in our voice. When the joint is attacked by autoimmune arthritis, it inhibits these motions, and can cause hoarseness, difficulty breathing, and pain. Kelly Young has a great article about cricoarytenoid arthritis over at her website, RA Warrior.

Look at how many vital life processes, like breathing and eating, are made difficult and painful due to autoimmune arthritis.

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