Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disease that leads to inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues. It is a long-term disease. It can also affect other organs.
The cause of RA is not known. It is an autoimmune disease. This means the immune system of the body mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.
RA can occur at any age, but is more common in middle age. Women get RA more often than men.
Infection, genes, and hormone changes may be linked to the disease. Smoking may also be linked to RA.
It is less common than osteoarthritis (OA). OA which is a condition that occurs in many people due to wear and tear on the joints as they age.
Most of the time, RA affects joints on both sides of the body equally. Fingers, wrists, knees, feet, elbows, ankles, hips and shoulders are the most commonly affected.
The disease often begins slowly. Early symptoms may include:
Joint symptoms may include:
Other symptoms include:
There is no test that can determine for sure whether you have RA. Most people with RA will have some abnormal test results. However, some people will have normal results for all tests.
Two lab tests that are positive in most people and often help in the diagnosis are:
These tests are positive in most patients with RA. The anti-CCP antibody test is more specific for RA.
Other tests that may be done include:
RA most often requires long-term treatment by an expert in arthritis called a rheumatologist. Treatment includes:
Early treatment for RA with medicines called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDS) should be used in all patients. This will slow joint destruction and prevent deformities. The activity of the RA should be checked at regular visits to make sure the disease is under control. The goal of treatment is to stop the progression of the RA.
Anti-inflammatory medicines: These include aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen and celecoxib.
Disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These are often the medicines that are tried first in people with RA. They are prescribed along with rest, strengthening exercise, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Corticosteroids: These medicines work very well to reduce joint swelling and inflammation, but they can have long-term side effects. Therefore, they should be taken only for a short time and in low doses when possible.
Biologic DMARD agents: These medicines are designed to affect parts of the immune system that play a role in the disease process of RA.
Biologic agents can be very helpful in treating RA. However, people taking these medicines must be watched closely because of uncommon but serious adverse reactions:
Surgery may be needed to correct severely damaged joints. Surgery may include:
Range-of-motion exercises and exercise programs prescribed by a physical therapist can delay the loss of joint function and help keep muscles strong.
Sometimes, therapists will use special machines to apply deep heat or electrical stimulation to reduce pain and improve joint movement.
Other therapies that may help ease joint pain include:
Some people with RA may have intolerance or allergies to certain foods. A balanced nutritious diet is recommended. It may be helpful to eat foods rich in fish oils (omega-3 fatty acids). Smoking cigarettes should be stopped. Excessive alcohol should also be avoided.
Some people may benefit from taking part in an arthritis support group.
How well a person does depends on the severity of symptoms and the response to treatment. It is important to start the treatment as soon as possible. Regular follow up visits are needed to adjust the treatment.
Permanent joint damage may occur without proper treatment. Early treatment with a three-medicine DMARD combination known as "triple therapy," or with the biologic DMARD medicines, can prevent joint pain and damage.
If not well treated, RA can affect nearly every part of the body. Complications may include:
However, these complications can be avoided with proper treatment. The treatments for RA can also cause serious side effects. Talk to your provider about the possible side effects of treatment and what to do if they occur.
Call your provider if you think you have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
There is no known prevention. Smoking appears to worsen RA. So it is important to avoid tobacco. Proper early treatment can help prevent further joint damage.
Reviewed By: Gordon A. Starkebaum, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Rheumatology, Seattle, WA. Internal review and update on 03/28/2019 by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.