Rheumatoid Arthritis Basics

The truth about the symptoms, causes and diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.

Health Monitor Staff
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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that can cause pain, swelling, stiffness and even tissue destruction in your joints. It can cause problems for other organs as well.

Autoimmune simply means that your body is attacking itself. In rheumatoid arthritis, one of the places your immune system attacks is the synovium, a membrane that surrounds joints and produces lubricating fluid for them.

Over time, the synovium becomes inflamed and swollen, squeezing the nerves, which in turn send pain signals to your brain. That swollen synovium protrudes into the joint and releases digestive enzymes that eat away at the bone.

RA affects everyone differently. You may have periods when the symptoms get worse, called flare-ups, and then other times when you feel better. Early treatment of RA can limit the damage to your joints. This can preserve your range of movement and keep you active longer.

When RA first appears, it can feel a lot like the flu. You may have a fever, feel fatigued, develop rashes or even lose weight. Eventu­ally you’ll feel stiffness and pain in your joints, especially in the morning.

The hands, wrists and feet are the most common targets for RA, but it can affect any joint in the body. Symptoms usually appear in a symmetric pattern, meaning that if a joint on your right side hurts, so will the one on your left side.

Because it stresses the entire body, uncontrolled RA can also make you more vulnerable to serious infections.

Unfortunately, no one yet clearly understands what causes RA. But there are some known risk factors that can increase your chance of developing the disease. Here are the five most important:

  • Age. RA generally first appears in adults between the ages of 30 and 50, although it can appear at any age.
  • Gender. One of the most important risk factors for RA is simply being female, so hormones may play a role. The latest statistics show that three times as many women as men develop the disease.
  • Genetics. Although the exact cause of RA has not fully been determined, studies suggest that both genetic and environmental factors increase the risk.
  • Smoking. If you’re a woman, indulging in cigarettes doubles your risk for RA. If you’re a man, smoking quadruples your risk for RA.
  • Stress. Although neither emotional nor physical stress (such as from an illness) actually cause RA, either can trigger periods of intense RA activity (flare-ups).

Establishing a clear-cut diagnosis of RA can be difficult, as no test works in every case and early symptoms can be similar to those of some other health problems.

April 2013