Rheumatoid arthritis is a type of autoimmune arthritis that leads to inflammation and damage of the joints. While rheumatoid arthritis can cause serious joint problems, it doesn't stop there: it can also affect your heart. One of the many cardiovascular problems associated with rheumatoid arthritis is aortitis. Here are three things you need to know about aortitis.
How does rheumatoid arthritis cause aortitis?
People who've had rheumatoid arthritis for a long time (more than 10 years) can develop rheumatoid vasculitis, a complication characterized by inflammation of the blood vessels throughout the body. This is one of the most serious complications associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
Generally, small and medium-sized blood vessels are affected, but in rare cases, large blood vessels like the aorta can be affected. It's still not known how rheumatoid arthritis leads to this condition or why some blood vessels are targeted while others are spared, but researchers think the immune system may mistakenly attack certain blood vessels, causing inflammation.
What are the signs of aortitis?
The symptoms of aortitis can vary greatly depending on what part of your aorta is inflamed. These symptoms may include pain in your back or abdomen, claudication (cramping pain) in your arms or legs, or angina. The development of blood clots may also be a warning sign that the aorta is inflamed.
Since these signs vary so much, it can be hard for doctors to identify aortitis. To make the diagnosis easier, make sure to tell your cardiologist that you have rheumatoid arthritis; this will help them narrow down the cause of your symptoms.
How do cardiologists treat aortitis?
The main treatment for aortitis is prednisone, a type of corticosteroid. Generally, prednisone pills are taken daily for between one to three months. Once the swelling in your aorta improves, your doctor will taper your medication slowly over the next several months. Tapering is necessary because if you stop taking the drug suddenly, you'll experience withdrawal symptoms like severe fatigue and joint pain. This prednisone regimen works for about three-quarters of patients.
If your aortitis doesn't respond to prednisone, you'll need immunosuppressants. Immunosuppressants impair the function of your immune system which keeps your overactive immune system in check. Studies have shown that weekly doses of immunosuppressants work for 81% of people, according to Medscape.
Your cardiologist will monitor your aorta to ensure that the disease isn't progressing. Tests like CT scans and MRIs will be repeated periodically to monitor the progression.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis, stay alert for the signs of aortitis, and if you feel unwell, see a doctor immediately for steps to take towards heart disease treatment.