There’s always something new…

RA doesn’t just affect joints.  It can affect the lungs, kidneys, pancreas, and so on – all the body’s systems.  That’s a problem with a systemic disease.

Although I had thought my disease was fairly well controlled, it turns out that even though my joints seem to be okay, and my labs look fantastic, there’s hidden inflammation wreaking havoc internally.  In my ongoing learn-A&P-by-malfunction life-course, I now get to learn all about pericarditis.

Pericard-itis is exactly what it sounds like it would be: inflammation of the pericardium.  And if you’ve ever taken Greek (thank you, Dr. Pecota), the pericardium is exactly what it sounds like it might be:  peri is a preposition meaning around, and cardion means heart, so the pericardium means something around the heart.  Thus pericarditis is inflammation of the thin, double-walled sac that surrounds the heart.  And let me tell you, it hurts!

There are many potential causes of pericarditis, and one is autoimmune diseases like RA.  Other causes include infection, heart attack/surgery, cancer, chest injury, HIV, and TB.  But with RA/SLE/PsA as a risk factor, this is something that the autoimmune community really ought to know more about.

The main symptom is chest pain.  This is most commonly sharp, stabbing pain – particularly in the center.  If you’re atypical like me, it could be more of a dull ache.  Think of your entire sternum hurting.  If you have a history of costochondritis (inflammation of the joints where the ribs attach to the sternum), you might be tempted to dismiss pericarditis symptoms as a costochondritis flare.  We’re talking about chest pain, though.  Go see your doctor!

Other symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Palpitations
  • Fever
  • Pain when swallowing

It’s important to know the symptoms and seek help when warranted.  Don’t blow this off as a minor flare.  When we have chest pain, we need an accurate diagnosis and a good treatment plan!

Easier said than done.  I ignored things for a couple weeks, until finally my family members were concerned and insisted that I see our doctor.  Now, I like my doctor, but am not looking for extra excuses to see him.  I tend to figure that if I ignore things long enough, they’ll get better on their own.  After all, the body has a remarkable ability to heal itself!  Nonetheless, to get family members off my back, I went to see my doctor.  He is usually pretty good at the MD’s poker face. Nothing fazes him.  But when we discussed the “what makes it better/worse” question and I told him that it helps to lean forward, he looked at me like I’d lost my mind.  I smiled, “What can I say?  I just report the symptoms. You get to figure out what they mean.”  As it turns out, it’s pretty well documented that sitting up and leaning forward can ease the chest pain associated with pericarditis.  Once the doctors gave a name to my symptoms and I was able to read about it, I exclaimed, “HA! I’m not crazy!”  Well, maybe I am, but not about this!

Tests

When you see your doctor for chest pain, tests will be done.  Lots of tests.  Doctors don’t like their patients dying, so take complaints of chest pain quite seriously.  Even if you insist that it’s not your heart, it’s your lungs, they will ignore you and focus on your heart.  Expect to have an electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG) done almost immediately.  This not only tells the doctor what your heart is doing at that moment, but can show evidence of a past heart attack.1

Stethoscopes are a great invention.  In the case of pericarditis, the layers of the pericardium can rub against one another, and doctors are often able to hear this rubbing.  It’s fascinating.  Painful, but fascinating.

Another test, but one that can’t be done in a lot of primary care offices, is an echocardiogram (echo). This is an ultrasound of the heart, and in addition to an ECG is one of the tests that can be used in diagnosing pericarditis.  Positive results are considered conclusive, however negative results are not.

A chest x-ray can show what’s going on with your lungs, and will also show if the heart is enlarged.

MRI can be done to check the thickness of the pericardium, but is not likely to be one of the tests ordered initially.

Labs might also be ordered.  This is especially true if you go to the ER from your doctor’s office.  They’ll completely ignore your pcp’s input and order a plethora of tests to measure inflammation and make sure you’re not having a heart attack.2

Types

  • Acute pericarditis appears suddenly and lasts fewer than three weeks.
  • Incessant pericarditis is continuous and usually lasts 4-6 weeks, but definitely less than 3 months.
  • Recurrent pericarditis is when symptoms of acute pericarditis resolve completely, the patient is symptom-free, and then 4-6 weeks later the symptoms occur again.
  • Chronic pericarditis lasts longer than 3 months.

The Art of Medicine

Eventually I saw a cardiologist.  He’s a fantastic guy.  He read the history my family doctor sent, listened to my story, did an exam, and read the ECG.  Tired of waiting for the ultra-slow wifi to work, he said, “Let’s do this the old fashioned way,” and retrieved a couple tomes from his office – including one that he said used to be the Bible of cardiology.  It was kinda neat to watch him look things up just to confirm he was remembering things accurately, and he showed me in his books what it says about RA and pericarditis. Then he told me that he’d check up-to-date once he had a better internet connection.

After that, he showed me my ECG and explained that the machine was reading it as normal, but that’s not how he read it.  And he carefully showed me the exact places on all those wiggly lines that he thinks look like my readings are abnormal, as if I were able to read ECG’s.  I can’t, but he made it sound fascinating, didn’t treat me like an idiot, and I’m tempted to get a book to see if I can pick up the basics of reading ECG’s.

Medicine isn’t just feeding data into a computer that turns around and spits out a diagnosis and treatment plan.  There’s an art to listening to patients, asking the right questions to get all the assorted symptoms that the patient didn’t even think to mention, and putting everything together.  Then after determining a diagnosis, doctors still need to figure out a treatment plan.  Every patient is different.

Treatment

Since this is inflammation, it makes sense that anti-inflammatories would be the first line of treatment.  But RA patients already know to take ibuprofen before bothering their doctors with a little inflammation, which means my cardiologist jumped directly to the next step.

Colchicine is a gout medicine that works to reduce inflammation, and is one of the most common pericarditis treatments.  My insurance has this as a Tier II med, so be forewarned.  The most common side effect is needing frequent trips to the bathroom with lots of TP and air freshener, but if you’re already taking something like sulfasalazine, that is unlikely to be a problem 🙂

Steroids can also be prescribed to reduce the inflammation.  It’s nice to know there are options if the colchicine doesn’t work.  Frankly, given the cost difference, my personal preference would be to deal with prednisone, but there’s the usual love/hate issue when that medicine is prescribed.

Here’s hoping your life is less eventful!

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1 If the ECG’s automated results say “inferior infarct, age undetermined” do not panic. It might mean that you had a small heart attack at some time in the past, but it also might mean that the machine isn’t particularly reliable and your results should be interpreted by a skilled cardiologist who will say, “don’t worry; you’re fine.”  If the doctor says, “Don’t worry; the machine doesn’t know what it’s talking about,” believe the doctor.

2 If you go to the ER from your doctor’s office, they’ll repeat the ECG and also draw blood to run every test possible in an effort to discover whether or not you’re having a heart attack.  When they announce that you’re not having a heart attack, feel free to respond, “Nobody ever thought I was having a heart attack. I am here because my doctor told me to come here for an echocardiogram because none of the cardiologists can see me sooner than two weeks.”  Better yet, it might be appropriate to be proactive at the very beginning of the visit and insist that they enter “sent by pcp for an echo” as your chief complaint, or they’ll get it all wrong and think that you’re there for chest pain.  To tell the truth, the ER is a horrible experience and if I’m ever sent again, I will take with me the name of the ER doctor with whom my pcp spoke.  And if it’s the height of flu season, beg to be sent anywhere else.

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Scholarships

Last week I received a request to let my readers know about AbbVie’s Rheumatology Scholarship.  To be honest, I’ve struggled with this.  My daughter was already working on the application.  She has a better shot at a scholarship that has few applicants than if there are zillions of applicants.  Do I really want everyone to know about this opportunity?  Since you’re reading this post, you realize that I decided to go ahead and help spread the news.

There are fifteen $15,000 scholarships available to students seeking degrees from either college or trade school.  To be eligible, the student’s doctor must confirm diagnosis of either RA, JIA, PsA, or AS.  More details can be found in the message AbbVie sent:

__________

Did you know students living with a rheumatologic disease like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) face unique challenges as they pursue their higher education goals? These students have a higher prevalence of short-term school absences when experiencing symptoms. According to one study, over 90% of students with rheumatologic disease seeking treatment at a rheumatology center reported missing school an average of 3.9 days during a two month period compared to the national average of 1.1 days.1

AbbVie recently launched the AbbVie Rheumatology Scholarship, which is designed to provide financial support for exceptional students living with RA, JIA, psoriatic arthritis (PsA) or ankylosing spondylitis (AS), as they pursue their higher education goals. Our hope is that this scholarship will further empower patients to reach their educational goals.

Below is a brief overview of the scholarship for your reference.

AbbVie Rheumatology Scholarship Overview

  • The scholarship is available to students living with RA, JIA, PsA or AS, who are seeking an undergraduate or graduate degree from an accredited United States (U.S.) university/college or trade school, and who plan to enroll for the 2016-2017 school year.
  • Fifteen Rheumatology Scholars will be selected. The award value will be $15,000 for each recipient.
  • Applicants will be judged based on academic excellence, community involvement, written response to an essay question and ability to serve as a positive role model for the rheumatology community.
  • Key dates and deadlines include:
    • Applications are available on RheumScholarship.com.
    • Applications must be submitted by April 4, 2016.
    • Winners will be notified by April 29, 2016.
  • More information on the AbbVie Rheumatology Scholarship, the application process and eligibility criteria can be found at RheumScholarship.com.

 

Types of Psoriatic Arthritis

There are different types of psoriatic arthritis.  Classification varies, depending on the source:

  • Asymmetric Oligoarticular PsA affects fewer than four joints, and (unlike RA) does not affect the same joint on both sides of the body.  This type of PsA is generally considered mild due to the small number of joints affected.  “Mild” is a comparative word that does not necessarily take into account the impact of the disease on a person’s life.  Approximately 70% of people with psoriatic arthritis have this type.
  • Symmetric Polyarticular PsA affects four or more joints, and (like RA) can affect the same joint on both sides of the body.  This type of PsA is more severe since more joints are involved.  Approximately 25% of people with psoriatic arthritis have this type.
  • DIP Predominant affects mainly the distal interphalangeal joints of the fingers and toes.  Inflammation of the DIPs is a clue that the autoimmune disease involved is PsA instead of RA.  Approximately 5% of people with psoriatic arthritis have this type.
  • Arthritis Mutilans, aka chronic absorptive arthritis, affects fewer than 5% of PsA and RA patients.  This type is severe and causes deformity.
  • Enthesitis is inflammation of the tendon/ligament insertion sites (where tendons/ligaments attach to bone). Over time, fibrosis or calcification can occur.
  • Spondylitis includes inflammation of the cervical spine (neck) and sacral spine (lower back), as well as hands, feet, hips, knees, elbows, and other joints as in RA and symmetric PsA.
  • Dactylitis affects fingers and toes, and indicates swelling of the entire digit.  This is in contrast to RA, wherein joints will swell, but not entire fingers/toes.

ClASsification criteria for Psoriatic ARthritis (CASPAR) requires inflammatory articular disease, but not necessarily visible swelling or symmetry.  Spine pain, enthesitis, or tendonitis are sufficient.  If that criteria is met, then at least three points from the following five categories qualify a person for a diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis:

  1. Psoriasis — either
    1. current psoriatic skin or scalp disease diagnosed by a rheumatologist or dermatologist (2 points), or
    2. personal history of psoriasis (1 point), or
    3. 1st degree (parent, child, sibling) or 2nd degree (grandparent, grandchild, aunt, uncle, nieces, nephews, half-siblings) blood relative with psoriasis (1 point)
  2. Psoriatic nails (1 point)
  3. Negative RF blood test (1 point)
  4. Dactylitis (swollen “sausage” fingers/toes)– current or history (1 point)
  5. New bone formation near joints visible on x-ray (1 point)