5 Must-Know Facts About Rheumatoid Arthritis

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  • Rheumatoid arthritis causes swelling and irritation in your joints—or inflammation. It's a condition that affects more than a million Americans. There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but treatment has greatly improved in the past 30 years. Today, early diagnosis and treatment can prevent the joint deformities that afflicted people with this condition in the past. Here are five facts to help you understand and live well with rheumatoid arthritis.

  • 1
    The causes are not known.
    Woman with elbow pain

    Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease—a disease of your body’s defense system, or immune system. Normally, the immune system attacks foreign invaders, like germs. When you have rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system attacks your joints and maybe other tissues as well. The attack takes the form of inflammation. Your joints become sore and swollen. Left untreated, inflammation causes joint damage and deformity with time. Experts don’t know what causes an autoimmune disease to develop. One theory is that it's related to genes, passed down through your family, which are triggered by something in your life or environment.

  • 2
    Joint pain isn’t the only symptom.

    Rheumatoid arthritis affects more women than men. Symptoms most often show up between ages 30 and 50 and may come and go in flares. Rheumatoid arthritis causes joint inflammation on both sides of your body. The first symptom may be morning stiffness. The joints affected most often are the small joints of your hands and feet. Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause symptoms outside your joints, including dry eyes, fever, fatigue and lumps beneath the skin of your hands and elbows.

  • 3
    Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis can be tricky.
    lab work

    There's no one test for diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis. To get a diagnosis, you will probably need to see a rheumatologist—a doctor who specializes in autoimmune joint diseases. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and do a physical exam. Several blood tests can suggest rheumatoid arthritis. One important test looks for certain proteins—or antibodies—in your blood. Blood tests may also show high levels of inflammation. X-rays of your joints can be another important tool. However, they might not show any changes early in the disease.

  • 4
    Treatment aims to control inflammation and prevent joint damage.

    Today's medications make successful treatment possible. Still, it's important to start treatment early, before joint damage occurs. Drugs that stop or slow the progression of the disease are called DMARDs (disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs). You will need to work with your doctor to find the medication that works best for you. You might need more than one medicine. You also might need to change your medication over time. With the right medication, though, many people will have no signs of active disease.

  • 5
    You can live well with rheumatoid arthritis.
    group of women lifting small weights

    Working with your doctor to get an early diagnosis and find the best treatment is the first step. There are also steps to take on your own. Exercise is important to keep your joints strong and limber. You should rest when you have a flare, but be active when you don't have symptoms. Low-impact aerobic exercises are usually best, but ask your doctor what exercise is safe for you. Consider working with a physical therapist to develop an exercise program. Other steps to take include eating healthy, not smoking, and keeping stress to a minimum.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Sep 6
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Rheumatoid Arthritis. American College of Rheumatology. https://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Rheumatoid-Arthritis
  2. What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. https://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/rheumatic_disease/rheumatoid_arthritis_ff.asp