What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that can affect more than just your joints. In some people, the condition also can damage a wide variety of body systems, including the skin, eyes, lungs, heart and blood vessels.
An autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body’s tissues. Unlike the wear-and-tear damage of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of your joints, causing a painful swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.
The inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis is what can damage other parts of the body as well. While new types of medications have improved treatment options dramatically, severe rheumatoid arthritis can still cause physical disabilities.
How common is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis can affect patients at any age. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?
The common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are:
- Tender, warm, swollen joints
- Joint stiffness that is usually worse in the mornings and after inactivity
- Fatigue, fever and weight loss
Early rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect your smaller joints first — particularly the joints that attach your fingers to your hands and your toes to your feet. As the disease progresses, symptoms often spread to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders. In most cases, symptoms occur in the same joints on both sides of your body.
About 40 percent of the people who have rheumatoid arthritis also experience signs and symptoms that don’t involve the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect many nonjoint structures, including:
- Salivary glands
- Nerve tissue
- Bone marrow
- Blood vessels
Rheumatoid arthritis signs and symptoms may vary in severity and may even come and go. Periods of increased disease activity, called flares, alternate with periods of relative remission — when the swelling and pain fade or disappear. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joints to deform and shift out of place.
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
You should contact your doctor if you have persistent discomfort and swelling in your joints.
What causes rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system attacks the synovium — the lining of the membranes that surround your joints.
The resulting inflammation thickens the synovium, which can eventually destroy the cartilage and bone within the joint.
The tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together weaken and stretch. Gradually, the joint loses its shape and alignment.
Doctors don’t know what starts this process, although a genetic component appears likely. While your genes don’t actually cause rheumatoid arthritis, they can make you more susceptible to environmental factors — such as infection with certain viruses and bacteria — that may trigger the disease.
What increases my risk for rheumatoid arthritis?
There are many risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis, such as:
- Your sex. Women are more likely than men to develop rheumatoid arthritis.
- Your age. Rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age, but it most commonly begins between the ages of 40 and 60.
- Family history. If a member of your family has rheumatoid arthritis, you may have an increased risk of the disease.
- Cigarette smoking increases your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, particularly if you have a genetic predisposition for developing the disease. Smoking also appears to be associated with greater disease severity.
- Environmental exposures. Although uncertain and poorly understood, some exposures such as asbestos or silica may increase the risk for developing rheumatoid arthritis. Emergency workers exposed to dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center are at higher risk of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
- Overweight or obese appear to increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, especially in women diagnosed with the disease when they were 55 or younger.
Diagnosis & Treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?
Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages because the early signs and symptoms mimic those of many other diseases. There is no one blood test or physical finding to confirm the diagnosis.
- Physical examination: During the physical exam, your doctor will check your joints for swelling, redness and warmth. He or she may also check your reflexes and muscle strength.
- Blood tests: People with rheumatoid arthritis often have an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR, or sed rate) or C-reactive protein (CRP), which may indicate the presence of an inflammatory process in the body. Other common blood tests look for rheumatoid factor and anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies.
- Imaging tests: Your doctor may recommend X-rays to help track the progression of rheumatoid arthritis in your joints over time. MRI and ultrasound tests can help your doctor judge the severity of the disease in your body.
How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. But recent discoveries indicate that remission of symptoms is more likely when treatment begins early with strong medications known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).
The types of medications recommended by your doctor will depend on the severity of your symptoms and how long you’ve had rheumatoid arthritis.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Over-the-counter NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) and naproxen sodium (Aleve). Stronger NSAIDs are available by prescription.
- Corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, reduce inflammation and pain and slow joint damage. Side effects may include thinning of bones, weight gain and diabetes. Doctors often prescribe a corticosteroid to relieve acute symptoms, with the goal of gradually tapering off the medication.
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). These drugs can slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and save the joints and other tissues from permanent damage. Common DMARDs include methotrexate (Trexall, Otrexup, Rasuvo), leflunomide (Arava), hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) and sulfasalazine (Azulfidine).
- Biologic agents. Also known as biologic response modifiers. These drugs can target parts of the immune system that trigger inflammation that causes joint and tissue damage. Biologic DMARDs are usually most effective when paired with a nonbiologic DMARD, such as methotrexate.
Your doctor may send you to a physical or occupational therapist who can teach you exercises to help keep your joints flexible. The therapist may also suggest new ways to do daily tasks, which will be easier on your joints. Assistive devices can make it easier to avoid stressing your painful joints.
If medications fail to prevent or slow joint damage, you and your doctor may consider surgery to repair damaged joints. Surgery may help restore your ability to use your joint. It can also reduce pain and correct deformities. Rheumatoid arthritis surgery may involve one or more of the following procedures:
- Surgery to remove the inflamed synovium (lining of the joint). Synovectomy can be performed on knees, elbows, wrists, fingers and hips.
- Tendon repair. Inflammation and joint damage may cause tendons around your joint to loosen or rupture. Your surgeon may be able to repair the tendons around your joint.
- Joint fusion. Surgically fusing a joint may be recommended to stabilize or realign a joint and for pain relief when a joint replacement isn’t an option.
- Total joint replacement. During joint replacement surgery, your surgeon removes the damaged parts of your joint and inserts a prosthesis made of metal and plastic.
Lifestyle changes & Home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage rheumatoid arthritis?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with rheumatoid arthritis:
- Fish oil. Some preliminary studies have found that fish oil supplements may reduce rheumatoid arthritis pain and stiffness. Side effects can include nausea, belching and a fishy taste in the mouth. Fish oil can interfere with medications, so check with your doctor first.
- Plant oils. The seeds of evening primrose, borage and black currant contain a type of fatty acid that may help with rheumatoid arthritis pain and morning stiffness. Side effects may include nausea, diarrhea and gas. Some plant oils can cause liver damage or interfere with medications, so check with your doctor first.
- Tai chi. This movement therapy involves gentle exercises and stretches combined with deep breathing. Many people use tai chi to relieve stress in their lives. Small studies have found that tai chi may reduce rheumatoid arthritis pain. When led by a knowledgeable instructor, tai chi is safe. But don’t do any moves that cause pain.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Rheumatoid Arthritis. https://medlineplus.gov/rheumatoidarthritis.html. Accessed 2 Mar 2017.
Rheumatoid arthritis. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/rheumatoid-arthritis/home/ovc-20197388. Accessed 2 Mar 2017.
Review Date: March 2, 2017 | Last Modified: April 14, 2017