Relapsing polychondritis (RP) is a rare disease that may cause inflammation of cartilage throughout the body, particularly in the ears, nose, joints, eyes and throat. Flares of this disease come and go. The severity of the flares as well as how often they occur will vary from person to person. Although there is currently no cure for relapsing polychondritis, it is often effectively treated with medications.
Cause and Risk Factors
The cause of relapsing polychondritis is unknown. The underlying trigger for the disease could be related to a person's genetic makeup or triggered by the environment, but it is not clear. Whatever the cause, relapsing polychondritis is thought to be an autoimmune disease – a disease where the immune system attacks healthy tissue. In this case the immune system targets the cartilage.
Symptoms of relapsing polychondritis can include:
- Inflamed cartilage
- Redness, swelling, and pain
- Tissue damage causing deformity and poor functioning
- Shortness of breath
- Complications in the rib cage, large and small joints, eyes, heart, lungs, blood vessels, and even kidneys
Because the inflammation comes and goes, and the symptoms are not exclusive to RP, diagnosing relapsing polychondritis can be challenging. Often the initial symptoms involve the ears or nose with redness and pain and are thought to be due to an infection leading to treatment with antibiotics. And because the condition may spontaneously improve, the prescribed antibiotics might be assumed to have been effective.
In each person, the tissues involved, severity of the inflammation, and frequency of flares is so variable that it may take many episodes before a diagnosis is made. Once the condition is diagnosed, additional appointments with your physician will be required to assess the severity of your polychondritis and determine what type of treatment is required. Frequent visits and testing may also be needed to observe for complications.
Your physician will work to deliver a treatment plan appropriate to your needs. Treatment for relapsing polychondritis may include:
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Immune-suppressive medications
Close collaboration with your physician is the key to managing this disease and often requires regular follow-up appointments. Though there is no cure, the outlook for people with relapsing polychondritis is quite good. Today, with close monitoring, new medications, and prompt institution of treatment, most people can lead full productive lives.
To learn more about our services or to make an appointment with a Brigham and Women’s Hospital rheumatologist, contact one of our trained coordinators at 1-800-294-9999 to get connected with the best doctor for your needs.