Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory disease that affects the joints, causing pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function. In RA, the immune system, whose normal function is to defend the body from foreign substances like germs, attacks the membrane that lines the joints. Diseases such as RA, in which the body’s immune systems attacks healthy tissues and cells, are known as autoimmune diseases.
Rheumatoid arthritis is most often a chronic condition, meaning that it can last for a lifetime or a very long time. Some people with RA have mild symptoms, while the disease is more severe in others. Symptoms may be constant or may fluctuate between mild periods and times when symptoms are more severe, called flares.
About two or three times more women are affected by RA than men. It’s estimated that approximately 1.3 million people in the United States are affected by RA. The disease occurs in all races and ethnic groups and can begin at any age.
As of yet, there is no known cause of RA. Researchers suspect that the following factors may be involved in its development: genetics, environmental factors, and hormonal factors (of interest due to the increased prevalence of RA in women).
In RA, tissue that lines the joints, called synovium, is attacked by the immune system and becomes inflamed. As RA progresses, the inflamed synovium invades and destroys the cartilage and bone within the joint. As a result, the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support the joint weaken and no longer work properly. This results in pain and joint damage.
Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose because there is no single test for the disease. Doctors must instead use several tools to make a diagnosis. These include:
Medications used to treat RA include analgesics for pain relief, corticosteroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce inflammation, and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs to slow disease progression.
Healthy behavior changes are often an important part or therapy for RA. Your healthcare team may recommend some of the following steps to help relieve pain, reduce inflammation, slow down or stop joint damage, and improve your well-being and ability to function:
People with RA who have severe joint damage may be candidates for surgery. The following procedures are intended to reduce pain, improve joint function, and improve the patient’s ability to carry out daily activities:
If you’re a candidate for surgery, you and your doctor will discuss the risks and benefits of the intended procedure and your overall health before determining whether surgery is appropriate for you.
To get the most effective treatment for RA, you’ll likely have a team of healthcare professionals. Members of this team may include:
The affects of RA may not be limited to physical symptoms. You may also find that it affects you emotionally—possibly causing depression, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, and low self-esteem. Emotional support can help you cope with these issues. Friends, family members, RA support groups, or mental health professionals (such as counselors and psychologist) can be good places to turn to for help.
To control the physical symptoms of RA, follow the healthy behavior recommendations of your doctor (such as those described earlier in “Therapy”) and see your doctor regularly. Sticking to an appointment schedule will allow your doctor to monitor the course of RA, change therapies as needed, and make sure medications are effective and not causing negative side effects.
Rheumatoid Arthritis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Rheumatic_Disease/default.asp. (Accessed October 2010).
Rheumatoid Arthritis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/rheumatoid.htm. (Accessed 2010).