What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic (long-lasting) disease that mostly affects joints, such as the wrist, hands, feet, spine, knees, and jaw. In joints, RA causes inflammation that leads to:

  • Pain.
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness.
  • Loss of function.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder because the immune system attacks the healthy joint tissues. Normally, the immune system helps protect the body from infection and disease.

RA may cause you to feel unusually tired, to have occasional fevers, and to have a loss of appetite. It also may cause other medical problems in the heart, lungs, blood, nerves, eyes, and skin.

Treatments can help people with the disease to lead productive lives.

Who gets rheumatoid arthritis?

Certain risk factors make it more likely for you to get rheumatoid arthritis. These include:

  • Age. You can get RA at any age; however, the risk for getting RA goes up as you grow older.
  • Sex. Rheumatoid arthritis is more common among women than men.
  • Family history. If a family member has RA, you may be more likely to develop the disease.
  • Smoking. People who smoke over a long period of time are at an increased risk of getting rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Obesity. Being obese may increase your risk for the disease as well as limit how much the disease can be improved.
  • Gum disease.

What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

Common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Joint pain at rest and when moving, along with tenderness, swelling, and warmth of the joint.
  • Joint stiffness that lasts longer than 30 minutes.
  • Feeling unusually tired or having low energy.
  • Occasional low-grade fever.
  • Loss of appetite.

Rheumatoid arthritis can happen in any joint; however, it is more common in the wrist, hands, and feet. The symptoms usually happen on both sides of the body. For example, if you have RA in the right hand, you likely also have it in the left hand.

In some people, RA starts slowly, affecting just a few joints. However, if it is not treated or the treatments are not working, RA can get worse and affect more joints. This can lead to more damage and disability. At times, RA symptoms get worse in “flares” due to a trigger such as:

  • Stress.
  • Too much activity.
  • Suddenly stopping medications.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

Doctors do not know what causes the immune system to turn against the body’s joints and other tissues. A mix of genes, environmental factors, and sex hormones may lead to the disease.