Patient Information

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune form of arthritis, where the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues. Since RA is a lifelong condition with no cure it is important to learn more about the potential impact of the disease and treatment options.

What Are The Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis?

In patients with RA, the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium, a thin membrane between the bones of a joint. This can happen to any joint in the body, resulting in pain, swelling, stiffness, redness, warmth, or restricted range of motion in the affect joint (or joints). RA is generally symmetrical, meaning that if the right knee is inflamed the left knee is likely be inflamed as well. However, RA does not follow a specific pattern, and no two cases of RA are exactly alike. Symptoms vary from person to person and can even change on a daily basis. Most people experience periods of intense joint inflammation, called flares, interspersed with periods of little to no disease activity, which is called remission. But for some people the joint inflammation is continuous and may get worse over time. Since the inflammation is systemic, fatigue is often a symptom of RA. Other symptoms include morning stiffness, loss of appetite, anemia, or low-grade fever. Some people develop rheumatoid nodules, or lumps of tissue that form on a joint under the skin, most often around the elbows. Over time, inflammation in the body can also cause damage to cartilage, tendons, ligaments, or other organs and internal systems. The ends of bones can get worn away, causing joint deformity and disability. Luckily, treatments are improving rapidly and patients have a much better prognosis today than they did just a few years ago.

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Who Gets Rheumatoid Arthritis?

According to the Arthritis Foundation, there are nearly 1.3 million people in the United States who suffer from RA. This accounts for nearly one percent of the nation’s adult population. While RA can affect people of all ages, races, and genders, it is true that nearly 70 percent of people with RA are women. Onset most commonly occurs between the ages of 30 and 60, but can also occur at a younger or older age.

What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Though scientists have been investigating RA for decades, no single cause has yet been identified. Most scientists agree that RA is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Researchers have determined that a particular genetic marker indicates a tenfold greater probability of developing RA. However, not all people with these genes develop RA; and not all people with RA have these genes. Scientists are also investigating the impact of infectious agents, such as viruses or bacteria, which may trigger the disease. Other suspects include female hormones and stressful events such as physical or emotional trauma. Smoking has also been identified as a risk factor for developing RA.

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How Is Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosed?

There is no single test to confirm a diagnosis of RA. Instead, a combination of medical history, clinical exams, and test results will allow a rheumatologist to make the diagnosis. During the physical exam, the doctor will consider fatigue and stiffness as well as looking for physical indications of swelling, warmth, and reduced motion in the joints. Rheumatoid nodules and the pattern of joints affected can also help distinguish RA from other conditions. Commonly ordered blood tests include the rheumatoid factor (RF), erythrocyte sedimentation rate, c-reactive protein, and anti-CCP test. X-rays can also be used to determine bone erosion or the loss of joint cartilage. Taken together these observations and test results can confirm a diagnosis of RA.