Posted in rheumatoid arthritis

Don’t blame rheumatoid arthritis on the modern world

Quite often, people blame factors in the modern world as a cause of rheumatoid arthritis. This assumption looks at processed foods, pollution, and modern lifestyles as the cause of or at least a triggering factor in the number of people who are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. However, this is simply not true because rheumatoid arthritis has been around for centuries.

The earliest known appearance of RA was found in Indian skeletal remains from 4500BC located in what is now the state of Tennessee. Another 21 skeletons found in Mexico, dating from 1400 BC to 1550 AD, also were found to have RA-like deformities (The Journal of Rheumatology, 2001). There is no earlier documentation of RA. However, it is believed that “the Roman emperor Constantine IX, who lived from 980 to 1055, appears to have had RA, according to a detailed contemporary description” (The Journal of Rheumatology, 2001).

The first written reference about RA goes back to India in 123AD where a medical textbook describes a disease where “swollen, painful joints initially strike the hands and feet, then spread to the body, causing loss of appetite, and occasionally fever” (The History of Rheumatoid Arthritis). In the year 1591, a French physician and professor from the University of Paris wrote one of the first books about arthritis. He used the term “rheumatism” describing a condition that includes symptoms of “inflammation, soreness, stiffness in the muscles, and pain in and around the joints.” (Id.) He wrote, “The whole body hurts, in some the face is flushed; pain is most severe around the joints, so that the slightest movement of the foot, hand, or finger causes a cry of pain…At night…the pain becomes more serious and the patient cannot sleep.” (Id.) It seems like he may be describing a combination of RA and FMS. (Id.)

The first treatment for the termed condition “rheumatism” came from Peruvian bark around 1680 and what is interesting is that it was anti-malarial agent similar to Plaquenil, which is prescribed today for RA. Willow bark was introduced in 1763 as an additional agent to find the disease, which contained ingredients that we find today in aspirin. (The Journal of Rheumatology, 2001.)

In the 1800s, European medicine started recognizing RA as an official condition. A doctor from Iceland described RA in 1782 and noted that was more common in women and it was commonly found in people around the age of 40. One of the main reasons that RA was considered to be a “new condition” until the 1800s was that people rarely lived beyond their 40s (The Journal of Rheumatology, 2001).

In 1859, Sir Alfred Garrod, an English doctor, gave the “strange” disease a name, and from the point on, the term, “rheumatoid arthritis” became its clinical name. In 1893, joint replacement surgery was invented and in 1929, another new drug was created to treat muscle pain. It was in the form of gold salt injections (The History of Rheumatoid Arthritis).

1939 was the first time that anyone recognized the autoimmune component of RA. At the Research Institute of Melbourne, Australia, scientists explained that autoimmunity factor causes the body’s defense system to malfunction and attacks its own tissues (The History of Rheumatoid Arthritis). Two years after the discovery of autoimmunity malfunctions, the American Rheumatism Association officially recognized rheumatoid arthritis as a medical disorder. In 1946, the American Committee to Control Rheumatism acknowledged the American field of rheumatology. Two years later, the Arthritis Foundation was created.

In 1948, anti-inflammatory steroid injections were introduced and the isolation of the rheumatoid factor was ascertained as an antibody isolated in people who have rheumatoid arthritis. Prednisone was introduced in 1955, and since then many new treatments have been created to treat RA.

For the reasons mentioned, the next time someone tells you that RA is a disease of the modern world, feel free to correct him or her by giving them a history lesson. Ironically, the thing modern about the disease is that it remains a mystery. (Maybe in another hundred years, the mystery will be resolved.)


Arthritis Foundation

Rheumatoid Arthritis Has Been Around for Centuries — How Best to Treat It? The Journal of Rheumatology 2001;28:751-757;

The History of Rheumatoid Arthritis. (n.d.). Retrieved from Arthritis Insight:

Photo Credit: Minnesota State University, Forensic anthropology

3 thoughts on “Don’t blame rheumatoid arthritis on the modern world

  1. This was a very interesting post, Lana. I knew that RA isn't necessarily a "modern" disease — I've never had anyone infer to me that it was — but I didn't know any specifics about it, so thank you for doing the research. After reading your post, I googled to see if other mammals get RA, and to my surprise, discovered that although it's relatively rare, dogs and cats can also get it, and the treatments for them are much the same as for us. They also get osteoarthritis, the degenerative arthritis that RA is so often mistaken for by those who don't know much about either disease. OA is much more common in dogs and cats, just as it is in humans.Great post! Thanks for the education. It never hurts to know as much as we can about RA.

  2. Very interesting! I can't imagine being one of those poor people who had it before there were any medications to help out.And, Wren, I had no idea cats and dogs could get it!!Laurie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s