Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a long-term disease that leads to inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues. It can also affect other organs.
The cause of RA is unknown. It is an autoimmune disease, which means the body's immune system 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.
Most of the time, RA usually affects joints on both sides of the body equally. Wrists, fingers, knees, feet, and ankles are the most commonly affected.
The disease often begins slowly. Early symptoms may include minor joint pain, stiffness, and fatigue.
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 often help in the diagnosis are:
Other tests that may be done include:
RA usually requires lifelong treatment, including medications, physical therapy, exercise, education, and possibly surgery. Early, aggressive treatment for RA can delay joint destruction.
Disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These are often the drugs that are tried first in people with RA. They are prescribed along with rest, strengthening exercise, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Anti-inflammatory medications: These include aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen.
Antimalarial medications: This group of medicines includes hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil). They are most often used along with methotrexate. It may be weeks or months before you see any benefit from these drugs.
Corticosteroids: These medicines work very well to reduce joint swelling and inflammation, but they can have long-term side effects. Therefore should be taken only for a short time and in low doses when possible.
Biologic agents: These drugs are designed to affect parts of the immune system that play a role in the disease process of rheumatoid arthritis.
They may be given when other medicines for rheumatoid arthritis have not worked. At times, your doctor will start biologic drugs sooner, along with other rheumatoid arthritis drugs.
Most of them are given either under the skin (subcutaneously) or into a vein (intravenously). There are different types of biologic agents:
Biologic agents can be very helpful in treating rheumatoid arthritis. However, people taking these drugs must be watched very closely because of serious risk factors:
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).
Some people may benefit from taking part in an arthritis support group.
How well a person does depends on the severity of symptoms.
People with rheumatoid factor, the anti-CCP antibody, or subcutaneous nodules seem to have a more severe form of the disease. People who develop RA at a younger age also seem to get worse more quickly.
Permanent joint damage may occur without proper treatment. Early treatment with a three-drug combination known as "triple therapy" can decrease joint pain and damage. Many of the newer drugs have also shown positive results.
Rheumatoid arthritis can affect nearly every part of the body. Complications may include:
The treatments for RA can also cause serious side effects. Talk to your doctor about the possible side effects of treatment and what to do if they occur.
Call your health care provider if you think you have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
There is no known prevention. Smoking cigarettes appears to worsen RA, so it is important to avoid tobacco. Proper early treatment can help prevent further joint damage.
RA; Arthritis - rheumatoid
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Firestein GS. Etiology and pathogenesis of rheumatoid arthritis. In: Firestein GS, Budd RC, Gabriel SE, et al, eds. Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 69.
O'Dell JR, Mikuls TR, Taylor TH, et al. Therapies for active rheumatoid arthritis after methotrexate failure. N Engl J Med. 2013; 369:307.
Updated by: Gordon A. Starkebaum, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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