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Relapsing Polychondritis

As one of the nation’s leading centers for treating autoimmune diseases, the Rheumatology Program at UT Southwestern Medical Center combines expert care with the latest medical advancements. Our specialists conduct thorough evaluations to accurately diagnose and treat people with relapsing polychondritis.

Expert Treatment to Manage Relapsing Polychondritis

Relapsing polychondritis (RP) is a rare disease that causes chronic inflammation in cartilage, which is the strong, flexible connective tissue that cushions the ends of bones and forms the structure of the ears and nose. RP can also affect connective tissue elsewhere in the body, such as the skin, blood vessels, eyes, and heart.

Our rheumatologists (specialists in diseases that affect joints, bones, muscles, and the immune system) are at the forefront of research to develop improved treatments for autoimmune disorders such as RP, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. We bring the latest innovations from the lab to the bedside for exceptional patient care.

Causes of Relapsing Polychondritis

RP is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. Although the exact cause of RP is not fully known, some research has shown that a certain gene can increase the risk of developing the condition. Trauma, exposure to toxins, or other environmental factors might also trigger RP.

Symptoms of Relapsing Polychondritis

RP most often affects the ears but can affect cartilage and other connective tissue anywhere in the body, such as the:

  • Nose
  • Joints
  • Ribs
  • Spine
  • Windpipe
  • Eyes
  • Skin
  • Organs, including the heart and kidney

Signs and symptoms of RP vary in severity but commonly include:

  • Ear pain and redness
  • Inflammation in nose cartilage resulting in a dip in the bridge of the nose ("pug nose")
  • Eye redness, pain, and swelling
  • Arthritis in multiple joints
  • Dizziness and hearing or balance problems
  • Pain in the ribs, throat, or neck
  • Difficulty breathing, speaking, and swallowing
  • Skin rashes

Although rare, RP in other areas can cause problems such as:

Episodes of RP can last a few days or weeks and can get progressively worse over time.

Diagnosing Relapsing Polychondritis

There is no one test that can specifically diagnose RP. Our rheumatologists conduct a thorough evaluation, which includes a:

  • Physical exam
  • Discussion of personal and family medical history
  • Discussion of symptoms

To confirm a diagnosis, our doctors might recommend one or more tests, such as:

  • Blood test to look for signs of inflammation, the body’s natural response to illness or injury, such as increased white blood cell count
  • X-ray to look for problems with cartilage or other connective tissue
  • Biopsy, a small tissue sample, to examine under a microscope for signs of inflammation or other problems

Treatment for Relapsing Polychondritis

Although there is no cure for RP, treatment can help relieve symptoms and preserve cartilage or connective tissue in affected areas. 

At UT Southwestern, our rheumatologists develop treatment plans tailored to each patient’s individual needs. Treatment options for RP include:

  • Corticosteroids to relieve pain, stiffness, and swelling, especially during relapses, which can help minimize their length, frequency, and severity
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain relief
  • Immunosuppressants to decrease immune system activity and reduce inflammation
  • Surgery for complications such as a damaged windpipe, nose, or heart valve

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