alt=a Viking sits next to his shield and sword, holding his hand in pain. Two modern professionals talk about the history of RA.

Diving into the History of RA: Part 1

The cause and history of RA are widely unknown. Researchers believe RA may be due to a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors that together affect the body.1 Studying the history of RA is an important topic for many researchers in order to further understand more about what causes RA. For many people, this information leads to the question: What exactly do we know about the history of RA?

Let’s break it down into a 2-part series!

The origin of RA

It might be surprising to many people that RA is a relatively new medical condition, however, there are a few interesting perspectives on the very early origins of RA. Using historical sources like ancient texts, Renaissance artwork, and data collected from human remains throughout different eras, researchers were able to categorize the genesis of RA into three theories:1

  1. Recent Origin

    The first theory is based on the idea that due to new environmental and genetic stressors, RA is a modern disease that simply didn’t exist in ancient times.

  2. Ancient Origin

    The second theory believes that ancient people did suffer from RA but the disease wasn’t described or recorded in a way that translated to modern times.

  3. New World to Old World

    The last theory explains that RA originally was present in indigenous groups such as Native Americans, but traveled to Europeans through increasing trade and travel.

These theories are highly debated and contested leading to serious disagreement among experts about which theory is the most likely. More research is needed to give the RA community a definite understanding of the beginnings of RA.

Ancient human remains and RA

Due to a lack of ancient text describing RA from a medical perspective, researchers looked to ancient human remains to fill in the gaps. In the 1800s, Professor Flinders Petrie and Sir Armand Ruffer conducted studies looking at human remains from 7 sites including Egypt, Greece, and Macedonia. On the remains, several severe lesions on the joints were present that pointed to RA, or so they thought. Today, researchers believe these lesions were actually suggestive of another rheumatic disease, ankylosing spondylitis (AS).1

Unfortunately, without strict testing guidelines and diagnosis criteria, and due to natural erosion, some of the early findings of human remains fell short of convincing the medical community that RA existed in ancient times.

The most promising ancient remains pointing to RA were exhumed in 1992. These remains date back to the Vikings, well before the first recorded medical mention of RA. When looking at the remains, x-ray imagery shows a clear deformity in the second finger related to RA. This discovery places the existence of RA well before any mention of the disease in medical print in the 1800s.1

Since these early discoveries, more and more remains from around the world have been uncovered indicating that RA likely existed in ancient times. However, solely relying on skeletal data to support the Ancient Origin theory is insufficient because of how difficult it is to discover a complete skeleton, especially body parts like the hands and feet where RA is most common.1

In the second part of this history series, I will summarize RA’s role in art and literature as another source of data for scientists, as well as summarize how RA was identified and named in a medical context in the 1800s.

What do you find most interesting about the history of RA? Share with us below!

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