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Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Rheumatoid Arthritis When Your Immune System Attacks Your Body

hand with Rhuematoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, systemic, autoimmune, inflammatory disease, characterized by pain on both sides of the body, swelling in multiple joints, and general malaise and fatigue.
RA affects about 1.3 million Americans, and there are 2.5 times as many women as there are men with RA, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
No specific lab test is available to confirm a diagnosis of RA. Physicians diagnose RA based on the overall pattern of symptoms, medical history, physical exam, x-rays, and lab tests.
Doctors use a variety of approaches to treat RA—medications, lifestyle, and surgery. The goals are to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, stop joint damage, and improve the person's ability to function.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that affects the joints. It causes pain, swelling, and stiffness. If one knee or hand has rheumatoid arthritis, usually the other does, too. This disease often occurs in more than one joint and can affect any joint in the body. People with this disease may feel sick and tired, and they sometimes get fevers.

RA is an autoimmune disease, which means the arthritis results from your immune system attacking your body's own tissues.

The course of rheumatoid arthritis can range from mild to severe. In most cases it is chronic, meaning it lasts a long time—often a lifetime. For many people, periods of relatively mild disease activity are punctuated by flares, or times of heightened disease activity. In others, symptoms are constant.

Scientists estimate that about 1.3 million people in the United States have rheumatoid arthritis.

Rhuematoid arthritis joint

Click to enlarge image
A joint (the place where two bones meet) is surrounded by a capsule that protects and supports it. The joint capsule is lined with a type of tissue called synovium, which produces synovial fluid that lubricates and nourishes joint tissues. In rheumatoid arthritis, the synovium becomes inflamed, causing warmth, redness, swelling, and pain. As the disease progresses, the inflamed synovium invades and damages the cartilage and bone of the joint. Surrounding muscles, ligaments, and tendons become weakened. Rheumatoid arthritis also can cause more generalized bone loss that may lead to osteoporosis (fragile bones that are prone to fracture). Source: NIAMS

Who Gets Rheumatoid Arthritis?

The disease occurs in all racial and ethnic groups, but affects two to three times as many women as men. Rheumatoid arthritis is more commonly found in older individuals, although the disease typically begins in middle age. Children and young adults can also be affected.

How Is Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosed?

People can go to a family doctor or rheumatologist to be diagnosed. A rheumatologist is a doctor who helps people with problems in the joints, bones, and muscles. Rheumatoid arthritis can be hard to diagnose because:

  • There is no single test for the disease.
  • The symptoms can be the same as other kinds of joint disease.
  • The full symptoms can take time to develop.

To diagnose rheumatoid arthritis, doctors use medical history, physical exam, X-rays, and lab tests.

Rheumatoid arthritis is different from osteoarthritis, the common arthritis that often comes with older age. RA can affect body parts besides joints, such as your eyes, mouth, and lungs.

What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Doctors don't know the exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis. They know that with this arthritis, a person's immune system attacks his or her own body tissues. Researchers are learning many things about why and how this happens. Things that may cause rheumatoid arthritis are:

  • Genes (passed from parent to child)
  • Environment
  • Hormones
Read More "Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)" Articles

When Your Immune System Attacks Your Body / Treatment and Causes / Research / "You Are Not Alone."

Summer 2014 Issue: Volume 9 Number 2 Page 12-13