How Your Immune System Plays Into Arthritis

Posted on Jul 6, 2011 in Health & Wellness, Health Optimization

You probably know that the immune system helps protect against diseases and germs that attack the body. But you may not be aware that it can also play a role in the development of certain types of arthritis.

Think of your immune system as your own little army, protecting you against all the bad bacteria, viruses, aches, pains, sniffles, and sneezes that want to invade your body and make you ill. With an autoimmune disease, like rheumatoid arthritis, your body’s white blood cells release chemicals to fend off what it thinks is an impending illness — but unfortunately this can happen when no real danger is present, making you sick instead.

Arthritis Pain and Inflammation

Arthritis pain and your immune system are related in two ways. Inflammation and arthritis pain can trigger an autoimmune response from your body that’s meant to help heal the damage, but it may temporarily worsen your symptoms. Conversely, your immune system can trigger autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis for an unknown reason, causing lasting damage to good cells in your body.

The inflammation of arthritis joints is characterized by:

  • Swelling of the joint
  • Redness
  • Warmth
  • Stiffness
  • Pain
  • Fever

So why does a little irritation in a joint, maybe from overuse or aggravation, result in all those symptoms? Because of the way your body responds to that injury. When a part of your body is injured, like the tissues and fibers in a joint, the immune system sends its army — white blood cells that release chemicals — straight to that spot to try to heal it. The concentration of those chemicals in the joints, nerves, blood, and tissues, and the resulting boost in blood circulation to the area can cause inflammation, pain, and irritation — all part of the body’s effort to make you feel better, not worse.

Once the body has fought off the invader and healed the damaged area, then symptoms of inflammation should subside — until the next time a joint is damaged.

Arthritis Pain and Autoimmune Disease

Sometimes, the body deploys its army of defenses when it’s not needed: In an autoimmune disease, healthy tissues and cells can be seen as foreign and dangerous, and the immune system begins to attack these parts of the body. Autoimmune diseases are as wide reaching as type 1 diabetes, certain thyroid conditions, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Most autoimmune diseases affect the body as a whole, including joints and connective tissues. Unfortunately, the reason autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, occur isn’t yet fully understood. But experts do know that once the body’s joints are attacked, they continue to suffer from arthritis pain and inflammation as the body attempts to heal what’s been hurt.

The types of arthritis related to your immune system include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis. Not much is known about how or why this autoimmune disease strikes. The body’s immune system attacks itself, resulting in a lifelong condition that may start with symptom-free periods and flare-ups that get progressively worse over time.
  • Reactive arthritis. This is a disease that occurs as a result of another infection. While the cause isn’t exactly understood, the inflammation that results could come from an exaggerated immune system response to the infection; the inflammation starts as the rest of the body heals.
  • Psoriatic arthritis.  This form of arthritis occurs along with psoriasis, a skin disease characterized by inflamed, red, and scaly patches. Why psoriatic arthritis occurs isn’t known, but it’s thought to be the result of an immune system abnormality.

Your body’s immune system is a powerful force, whether it’s healing or mistakenly harming your body. Research is ongoing to unravel the mystery of autoimmune diseases and redirect faulty immune systems.