Rheumatoid Arthritis

April 2017

Handout on Health: Rheumatoid Arthritis

This publication is for people who have rheumatoid arthritis, as well as for their family members, friends, and others who want to find out more about this disease. The publication describes how rheumatoid arthritis develops, how it is diagnosed, and how it is treated, including what people can do to help manage their disease. It also highlights current research efforts supported by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) and other components of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health (NIH). If you have further questions after reading this publication, you may wish to discuss them with your doctor.


Information boxes

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory disease that causes pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints. It occurs when the immune system, which normally defends the body from invading organisms, turns its attack against the membrane lining the joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis has several features that make it different from other kinds of arthritis. (See box “Features of rheumatoid arthritis.”) For example, rheumatoid arthritis generally occurs in a symmetrical pattern, meaning that if one knee or hand is involved, the other one also is. The disease often affects the wrist joints and the finger joints closest to the hand. It can also affect other parts of the body besides the joints. (See “What happens in rheumatoid arthritis?”) In addition, people with rheumatoid arthritis may have fatigue, occasional fevers, and a loss of energy.

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.

Features of rheumatoid arthritis

  • Tender, warm, swollen joints.
  • Symmetrical pattern of affected joints.
  • Joint inflammation often affecting the wrist and finger joints closest to the hand.
  • Joint inflammation sometimes affecting other joints, including the neck, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles, and feet.
  • Fatigue, occasional fevers, a loss of energy.
  • Pain and stiffness lasting for more than 30 minutes in the morning or after a long rest.
  • Symptoms that last for many years.
  • Variability of symptoms among people with the disease.

Who has rheumatoid arthritis?

Scientists estimate that about 1.5 million people, or about 0.6 percent of the U.S. adult population, have rheumatoid arthritis.1 Interestingly, some recent studies have suggested that although the number of new cases of rheumatoid arthritis for older people is increasing, the overall number of new cases may actually be going down.

1According to the National Arthritis Data Workgroup, the actual number of new cases of rheumatoid arthritis is lower than previous estimates because of changes in the classification for the condition, as cited in Helmick CG, Felson DT, Lawrence RC, Gabriel S, Hirsch R, Kwoh CK, Liang MH, Kremers HM, Mayes MD, Merkel PA, Pillemer SR, Reveille JD, Stone JH, for the National Arthritis Data Workgroup. Estimates of the Prevalence of Arthritis and Other Rheumatic Conditions in the United States. Part I. Arthritis Rheum 2008;58(1):15-25.

Rheumatoid arthritis occurs in all races and ethnic groups. Although the disease often begins in middle age and occurs with increased frequency in older people, older teenagers and young adults may also be diagnosed with the disease. (Children and younger teenagers may be diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, a condition related to rheumatoid arthritis.) Like some other forms of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis occurs much more frequently in women than in men. About two to three times as many women as men have the disease.

What happens in rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is primarily a disease of the joints. A joint is the point where two or more bones come together. With a few exceptions (in the skull and pelvis, for example), joints are designed to allow movement between the bones and to absorb shock from movements like walking or repetitive motions. The ends of the bones are covered by a tough, elastic tissue called cartilage. The joint is surrounded by a capsule that protects and supports it (see illustration). The joint capsule is lined with a type of tissue called synovium, which produces synovial fluid, a clear substance that lubricates and nourishes the cartilage and bones inside the joint capsule.

Picture of a Normal Joint and a Joint affected by Rheumatoid Arthritis
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).

Like many other rheumatic diseases, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease (auto means self), so called because a person’s immune system, which normally helps protect the body from infection and disease, attacks joint tissues for unknown reasons. White blood cells, the agents of the immune system, travel to the synovium and cause inflammation (synovitis), characterized by warmth, redness, swelling, and pain – typical symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. During the inflammation process, the normally thin synovium becomes thick and makes the joint swollen, puffy, and sometimes warm to the touch.

As rheumatoid arthritis progresses, the inflamed synovium invades and destroys the cartilage and bone within the joint. The surrounding muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support and stabilize the joint become weak and unable to work normally. These effects lead to the pain and joint damage often seen in rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers studying rheumatoid arthritis now believe that it begins to damage bones during the first year or two that a person has the disease, which is one reason why early diagnosis and treatment are so important.

Some people with rheumatoid arthritis also have symptoms in places other than their joints. Many people with rheumatoid arthritis develop anemia, or a decrease in the production of red blood cells. Other effects that occur less often include neck pain and dry eyes and mouth. Very rarely, people may have inflammation of the blood vessels (vasculitis), the lining of the lungs (pleurisy), or the sac enclosing the heart (pericarditis).

How does rheumatoid arthritis affect people’s lives?

Rheumatoid arthritis affects people differently. Some people have mild or moderate forms of the disease, with periods of worsening symptoms, called flares, and periods in which they feel better, called remissions. Others have a severe form of the disease that is active most of the time, lasts for many years or a lifetime, and leads to serious joint damage and disability.

Although rheumatoid arthritis is primarily a disease of the joints, its effects are not just physical. Many people with rheumatoid arthritis also experience issues related to:

  • Depression, anxiety.
  • Feelings of helplessness.
  • Low self-esteem.

Rheumatoid arthritis can affect virtually every area of a person’s life from work life to family life. It can also interfere with the joys and responsibilities of family life and may affect the decision to have children.

Fortunately, current treatment strategies allow most people with the disease to lead active and productive lives. These strategies include pain-relieving drugs and medications that slow joint damage, a balance between rest and exercise, and patient education and support programs. In recent years, research has led to a new understanding of rheumatoid arthritis and has increased the likelihood that, in time, researchers will find even better ways to treat the disease.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

Scientists still do not know exactly what causes the immune system to turn against the body’s own tissues in rheumatoid arthritis, but research over the last few years has begun to piece together the factors involved.

Genetic (inherited) factors: Scientists have discovered that certain genes known to play a role in the immune system are associated with a tendency to develop rheumatoid arthritis. For the genes that have been linked to rheumatoid arthritis, the frequency of the risky gene is only modestly higher in those with rheumatoid arthritis compared with healthy controls. In other words, individual genes by themselves confer only a small relative risk of disease. Some people who have these particular genes never develop the disease. These observations suggest that although a person’s genetic makeup plays an important role in determining if he or she will develop rheumatoid arthritis, it is not the only factor. What is clear, however, is that more than one gene is involved in determining whether a person develops rheumatoid arthritis and how severe the disease will become.

Environmental factors: Many scientists think that something must occur to trigger the disease process in people whose genetic makeup makes them susceptible to rheumatoid arthritis. A variety of factors have been suggested, but a specific agent has not been identified.

Other factors: Some scientists also think that a variety of hormonal factors may be involved. Women are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than men. The disease may improve during pregnancy and flare after pregnancy. Breastfeeding may also aggravate the disease. Contraceptive use may increase a person’s likelihood of developing rheumatoid arthritis. This suggests hormones, or possibly deficiencies or changes in certain hormones, may promote the development of rheumatoid arthritis in a genetically susceptible person who has been exposed to a triggering agent from the environment.

Even though all the answers are not known, one thing is certain: rheumatoid arthritis develops as a result of an interaction of many factors. Researchers are trying to understand these factors and how they work together.

How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?

Rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages for several reasons. First, there is no single test for the disease. In addition, symptoms differ from person to person and can be more severe in some people than in others. Also, symptoms can be similar to those of other types of arthritis and joint conditions, and it may take some time for other conditions to be ruled out. Finally, the full range of symptoms develops over time, and only a few symptoms may be present in the early stages. As a result, doctors use a variety of the following tools to diagnose the disease and to rule out other conditions:

Medical history: The doctor begins by asking the patient to describe the symptoms, and when and how the condition started, as well as how the symptoms have changed over time. The doctor will also ask about any other medical problems the patient and close family members have and about any medications the patient is taking. Accurate answers to these questions can help the doctor make a diagnosis and understand the impact the disease has on the patient’s life.

Physical examination: The doctor will check the patient’s reflexes and general health, including muscle strength. The doctor will also examine bothersome joints and observe the patient’s ability to walk, bend, and carry out activities of daily living. The doctor will also look at the skin for a rash and listen to the chest for signs of inflammation in the lungs.

Laboratory tests: Several lab tests may be useful in confirming a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Following are some of the more common ones:

  • Rheumatoid factor (RF): Rheumatoid factor is an antibody that is present eventually in the blood of most people with rheumatoid arthritis. (An antibody is a special protein made by the immune system that normally helps fight foreign substances in the body.) Not all people with rheumatoid arthritis test positive for rheumatoid factor, and some people test positive for rheumatoid factor, yet never develop the disease. Rheumatoid factor also can be positive in some other diseases; however, a positive RF in a person who has symptoms consistent with those of rheumatoid arthritis can be useful in confirming a diagnosis. Furthermore, high levels of rheumatoid factor are associated with more severe rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Anti-CCP antibodies: This blood test detects antibodies to cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP). This test is positive in most people with rheumatoid arthritis and can even be positive years before rheumatoid arthritis symptoms develop. When used with the RF, this test’s results are very useful in confirming a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis.
  • Others: Other common laboratory tests include a white blood cell count, a blood test for anemia, which is common in rheumatoid arthritis; the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (often called the sed rate), which measures inflammation in the body; and C-reactive protein, another common test for inflammation that is useful both in making a diagnosis and monitoring disease activity and response to anti-inflammatory therapy.

Imaging tests: X-rays are used to determine the degree of joint destruction. They are not useful in the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis before bone damage is evident; however, they may be used to rule out other causes of joint pain. They may also be used later to monitor the progression of the disease. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound may be useful in identifying the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis and can help determine the severity of the disease.

How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?

Doctors use a variety of approaches to treat rheumatoid arthritis. These are used in different combinations and at different times during the course of the disease and are chosen according to the patient’s individual situation. No matter what treatment the doctor and patient choose, however, the goals are the same: to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, slow down or stop joint damage, and improve the person’s sense of well-being and ability to function.

Good communication between the patient and doctor is necessary for effective treatment. Talking to the doctor can help ensure that exercise and pain management programs are provided as needed, and that drugs are prescribed appropriately. Talking to the doctor can also help people who are making decisions about surgery.

Goals of treatment

  • Relieve pain.
  • Reduce inflammation.
  • Slow down or stop joint damage.
  • Improve a person’s sense of well-being and ability to function.

Current treatment approaches

  • Lifestyle.
  • Medications.
  • Surgery.
  • Routine monitoring and ongoing care.

Health behavior changes: Certain activities can help improve a person’s ability to function independently and maintain a positive outlook.

  • Rest and exercise: People with rheumatoid arthritis need a good balance between rest and exercise, with more rest when the disease is active and more exercise when it is not. Rest helps to reduce active joint inflammation and pain and to fight fatigue. The length of time for rest will vary from person to person, but in general, shorter rest breaks every now and then are more helpful than long times spent in bed.

    Exercise is important for maintaining healthy and strong muscles, preserving joint mobility, and maintaining flexibility. Exercise can also help people sleep well, reduce pain, maintain a positive attitude, and manage weight. Exercise programs should take into account the person’s physical abilities, limitations, and changing needs.
  • Joint care: Some people find using a splint for a short time around a painful joint reduces pain and swelling by supporting the joint and letting it rest. Splints are used mostly on wrists and hands, but also on ankles and feet. A doctor or a physical or occupational therapist can help a person choose a splint and make sure it fits properly. Other ways to reduce stress on joints include self-help devices (for example, zipper pullers, long-handled shoe horns); devices to help with getting on and off chairs, toilet seats, and beds; and changes in the ways that a person carries out daily activities.
  • Stress reduction: People with rheumatoid arthritis face emotional challenges as well as physical ones. The emotions they feel because of the disease – fear, anger, and frustration – combined with any pain and physical limitations can increase their stress level. Although there is no evidence that stress plays a role in causing rheumatoid arthritis, it can make living with the disease difficult at times. Stress also may affect the amount of pain a person feels. Several techniques can help for coping with stress. Regular rest periods can help, as can relaxation, distraction, or visualization exercises. Exercise programs, participation in support groups, and good communication with the health care team are other ways to reduce stress.
  • Healthful diet: Except for several specific types of oils, there is no scientific evidence that any specific food or nutrient helps or harms people with rheumatoid arthritis. However, an overall nutritious diet with enough – but not an excess of – calories, protein, and calcium is important. Some people may need to be careful about drinking alcoholic beverages because of the medications they take for rheumatoid arthritis. Those taking methotrexate may need to avoid alcohol altogether because one of the most serious long-term side effects of methotrexate is liver damage.
  • Climate: Some people notice that their arthritis gets worse when there is a sudden change in the weather. However, there is no evidence that a specific climate can prevent or reduce the effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Moving to a new place with a different climate usually does not make a long-term difference in a person’s rheumatoid arthritis.

Medications: Most people who have rheumatoid arthritis take medications.2 Some medications (analgesics) are used only for pain relief; others, such as corticosteroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), are used to reduce inflammation.3 Still others, often called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), are used to try to slow the course of the disease. Common DMARDs include hydroxychloroquine, leflunomide, methotrexate, and sulfasalazine. Other DMARDs – called biologic response modifiers – may be used in people with more serious disease. These are genetically engineered medications that help reduce inflammation and structural damage to the joints by interrupting the cascade of events that drive inflammation. Currently, several biologic response modifiers are approved for rheumatoid arthritis, including abatacept, adalimumab, anakinra, certolizumab, etanercept, golimumab, infliximab, rituximab, and tocilizumab. Another DMARD, tofacitinib, from a new class of drugs call jak kinase (JAK) inhibitors, fights inflammation from inside the cell to reduce inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

2All medicines can have side effects. Some medicines and side effects are mentioned in this publication. Some side effects may be more severe than others. You should review the package insert that comes with your medicine and ask your health care provider or pharmacist if you have any questions about the possible side effects.

3 Warning: Side effects of NSAIDs include stomach problems; skin rashes; high blood pressure; fluid retention; and liver, kidney, and heart problems. The longer a person uses NSAIDs, the more likely he or she is to have side effects, ranging from mild to serious. Many other drugs cannot be taken when a patient is being treated with NSAIDs, because NSAIDs alter the way the body uses or eliminates these other drugs. Check with your health care provider or pharmacist before you take NSAIDs. NSAIDs should only be used at the lowest dose possible for the shortest time needed.

For many years, doctors initially prescribed aspirin or other pain-relieving drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, and they waited to prescribe more powerful drugs only if the disease worsened. In recent decades this approach to treatment has changed as studies have shown that early treatment with more powerful drugs – and the use of drug combinations instead of one medication alone – may be more effective in reducing or preventing joint damage. Someone with persistent rheumatoid arthritis symptoms should see a doctor familiar with the disease and its treatment to reduce the risk of damage.

Many of the drugs that help reduce disease in rheumatoid arthritis do so by reducing the inflammation that can cause pain and joint damage. However, in some instances, inflammation is one mechanism the body normally uses to maintain health, such as to fight infection and possibly to stop tumors from growing. The magnitude of the risk from the treatment is hard to judge because infections and cancer can occur in people with rheumatoid arthritis who are not on treatment, and probably more commonly than in healthy individuals. Nevertheless, appropriate caution and vigilance are justified.

Surgery: Several types of surgery are available to patients with severe joint damage. The primary purpose of these procedures is to reduce pain, improve the affected joint’s function, and improve the patient’s ability to perform daily activities. Surgery is not for everyone, however, and the decision should be made only after careful consideration by the patient and doctor. Together they should discuss the patient’s overall health, the condition of the joint or tendon that will be operated on, and the reason for, as well as the risks and benefits of, the surgical procedure. Cost may be another factor.

Routine monitoring and ongoing care: Regular medical care is important to monitor the course of the disease, determine the effectiveness and any negative effects of medications, and change therapies as needed. Monitoring typically includes regular visits to the doctor. It also may include blood, urine, and other laboratory tests and x-rays.

People with rheumatoid arthritis may want to discuss preventing osteoporosis with their doctors as part of their long-term, ongoing care. Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones become weakened and fragile. Having rheumatoid arthritis increases the risk of developing osteoporosis for both men and women, particularly if a person takes corticosteroids. Such patients may want to discuss with their doctors the potential benefits of calcium and vitamin D supplements or other treatments for osteoporosis.

Alternative and complementary therapies: Special diets, vitamin supplements, and other alternative approaches have been suggested for treating rheumatoid arthritis. Research shows that some of these, for example, fish oil supplements, may help reduce arthritis inflammation. For most, however, controlled scientific studies either have not been conducted on them or have found no definite benefit to these therapies.

As with any therapy, patients should discuss the benefits and drawbacks with their doctors before beginning an alternative or new type of therapy. If the doctor feels the approach has value and will not be harmful, it can be incorporated into a person’s treatment plan. However, it is important not to neglect regular health care.

Who treats rheumatoid arthritis?

Diagnosing and treating rheumatoid arthritis requires a team effort involving the patient and several types of health care professionals.

The primary doctor to treat arthritis may be an internist, a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and medical treatment of adults, or a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in arthritis and other diseases of the bones, joints, and muscles.

As treatment progresses, other professionals often help. These may include the following:

  • Orthopaedists: Surgeons who specialize in the treatment of, and surgery for, bone and joint diseases.
  • Physical therapists: Health professionals who work with patients to improve joint function.
  • Occupational therapists: Health professionals who teach ways to protect joints, minimize pain, perform activities of daily living, and conserve energy.
  • Dietitians: Health professionals who teach ways to use a good diet to improve health and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Nurse educators: Nurses who specialize in helping patients understand their overall condition and implement their treatment plans.
  • Psychologists: Health professionals who seek to help patients cope with difficulties in the home and workplace that may result from their medical conditions.

What you can do? The importance of self-care

Although health care professionals can prescribe or recommend treatments to help patients manage their rheumatoid arthritis, the real key to living well with the disease lies with the patients themselves. Research shows that people who take part in their own care report less pain and make fewer doctor visits. They also enjoy a better quality of life.

Self-management programs teach about rheumatoid arthritis and its treatments, exercise and relaxation approaches, communication between patients and health care providers, and problem solving. Research on these programs has shown that they help people:

  • Understand the disease.
  • Reduce their pain while remaining active.
  • Cope physically, emotionally, and mentally.
  • Feel greater control over the disease and build a sense of confidence in the ability to function and lead full, active, and independent lives.

What research is being conducted on rheumatoid arthritis?

Over the last several decades, research has greatly increased our understanding of the immune system, genetics, and biology. This research is now showing results in several areas important to rheumatoid arthritis. Scientists are thinking about rheumatoid arthritis in exciting ways that were not possible years ago.


Over the past decades, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)-supported researchers have identified several genetic factors that predispose some people to develop rheumatoid arthritis, as well as factors connected to disease severity. Scientists know that more than one gene is involved in determining whether a person develops rheumatoid arthritis and how severe the disease will become.

An international research team identified dozens of new areas in the human genome associated with rheumatoid arthritis and found that many are already the targets of drugs approved for other conditions. The findings hint at new treatment approaches for the disease.

Researchers are investigating the potential connection between health, disease, and the human microbiome, which is the entire population of microorganisms that inhabit the human body. One study found that the presence of a specific type of gut bacteria correlated with rheumatoid arthritis in newly diagnosed, untreated people. The finding suggests a potential role for the bacteria in the disease.

The disease process

NIAMS intramural researchers are studying the natural history of rheumatoid arthritis in children and adults in an effort to understand how the disease progresses and impacts patient symptoms and functional status.

Investigators are also exploring whether patients with rheumatoid arthritis in remission while taking tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α) inhibitors can remain in remission after withdrawal of these medications. In addition, investigators are attempting to identify predictors of relapse in these individuals.

Scientists are continuing to understand the molecular underpinnings of rheumatoid arthritis and are working to develop tests that could help diagnose rheumatoid arthritis earlier and identify patients who would benefit most from specific treatments.

New therapies

Researchers continue to identify molecules that appear to play a role in rheumatoid arthritis and thus are potential targets for new treatments. The path between identifying the molecule and developing a drug that targets it is long and difficult. Fortunately, this path has been successfully negotiated, and new drugs have emerged that successfully reduce symptoms and damage in rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers continue to identify more candidate drugs, with hopes that these will have fewer side effects or will cure more patients.

  • Tofacitinib: Tofacitinib, approved for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in 2012, was from a new class of drugs developed to target Janus kinases. One member of this family, JAK3, was discovered in the early 1990s by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) laboratory at the NIAMS. Subsequent studies carried out at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), in collaboration with the NIAMS, showed that genetic defects in JAK3 can cause severe combined immunodeficiency. This discovery led to the idea that drugs blocking Janus kinases would suppress the immune system and might be protective against the damaging inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis and certain other autoimmune diseases.
  • NIH AMP Program: The NIH Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP) is a public-private partnership developed to transform the current model for identifying and validating the most promising biological targets for the development of new drugs and diagnostics. The NIAMS is leading the Accelerating Medicines Partnership in Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus (AMP RA/Lupus). The goal of this program is to integrate data from multiple genome-wide analytic approaches to generate a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms of tissue damage in rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
  • Joint inflammation: NIAMS-funded researchers have determined that joint inflammation can continue in rheumatoid arthritis, even after clinical symptoms have eased. This finding may help doctors determine when a patient is truly in remission and can safely stop treatment.

More information on research is available from the following websites:

  • National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Research Trials and You was designed to help people learn more about clinical trials, why they matter, and how to participate. Visitors to the website will find information about the basics of participating in a clinical trial, first-hand stories from clinical trial volunteers, explanations from researchers, and links on how to search for a trial or enroll in a research-matching program.
  • ClinicalTrials.gov offers up-to-date information for locating federally and privately supported clinical trials for a wide range of diseases and conditions.
  • NIH RePORTER is an electronic tool that allows users to search a repository of both intramural and extramural NIH-funded research projects from the past 25 years and access publications (since 1985) and patents resulting from NIH funding.
  • PubMed is a free service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine that lets you search millions of journal citations and abstracts in the fields of medicine, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, the health care system, and preclinical sciences.

Hope for the future

Scientists are making rapid progress in understanding the complexities of rheumatoid arthritis: how and why it develops, and why some people get it and others do not, why some people get it more severely than others. Results from research are having an impact today, enabling people with rheumatoid arthritis to remain active in life, family, and work far longer than was possible 20 years ago. These advances will continue to lead to an improved quality of life for people with rheumatoid arthritis.

For more information

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)
Information Clearinghouse
National Institutes of Health

1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675
Phone: 301-495-4484
Toll free: 877-22-NIAMS (877-226-4267)
TTY: 301-565-2966
Fax: 301-718-6366
Email: NIAMSinfo@mail.nih.gov
Website: https://www.niams.nih.gov

If you need more information about available resources in your language or another language, please visit our website or contact the NIAMS Information Clearinghouse at NIAMSinfo@mail.nih.gov.

Other resources

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Website: https://www.niaid.nih.gov/Pages/default.aspx

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
National Institutes of Health

Website: https://nccih.nih.gov

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Website: https://www.aaos.org (con información en español)

American College of Rheumatology

Website: https://www.rheumatology.org

Arthritis Foundation

Website: https://www.arthritis.org

Key words

Analgesics. Medications designed to relieve pain. Pure analgesics do not affect inflammation.

Anti-CCP antibodies. Antibodies to cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP). A positive test for the antibodies is useful for confirming a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, tests for the antibodies can be positive years before the development of symptoms.

Autoimmune disease. A disease in which the immune system, which is designed to protect the body from foreign invaders, mistakenly sees the body’s own tissues as foreign and makes autoantibodies against them, leading to tissue destruction.

Biologic response modifiers. Genetically engineered medications that help reduce inflammation and structural damage to the joints by interrupting the cascade of events that drive inflammation.

C-reactive protein. A protein produced by the body during the process of inflammation. A positive blood test for the protein indicates the presence of inflammation in the body. The test may be used in diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis and monitoring disease activity and the response of treatment.

Cartilage. A tough, elastic tissue that covers the ends of the bones where they meet to form joints. In rheumatoid arthritis, the inflamed synovium invades and destroys joint cartilage.

Corticosteroids. Powerful anti-inflammatory hormones made naturally in the body or man made for use as medicine. Corticosteroids may be taken orally to relieve the systemic inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis or injected directly into an inflamed joint to temporarily reduce inflammation and relieve pain.

Dietitian. A health professional who teaches ways to use a good diet to improve health and maintain a healthy weight.

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). A class of medications used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. DMARDs do more than ease the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis like some other treatments. They often slow or stop the course of the disease to help prevent joint damage.

Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (sed rate). A blood test used to detect and monitor inflammation. It is measured by recording the rate at which red blood cells fall and form sediment at the bottom of a test tube.

Flare. A period of heightened disease activity. In rheumatoid arthritis, a flare may be characterized by increased fatigue; fever; and painful, swollen, and tender joints.

Hydroxychloroquine. An anti-inflammatory drug used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, malaria, and lupus.

Immune system. A complex network of cells and tissues that work in concert to protect the body against invaders such as viruses and bacteria.

Joint capsule. A tough membrane sac that holds the bones and other joint parts together.

Ligaments. Tough bands of connective tissue that attach bones to each other, providing stability.

Lupus. A chronic inflammatory condition in which the immune system attacks the skin, joints, heart, lungs, blood, kidneys, and brain. Also called systemic lupus erythematosus.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Test that provides high-resolution computerized images of internal body tissues. This procedure uses a strong magnet that passes a force through the body to create these images. 

Muscles. Bundles of specialized cells that contract and relax to produce movement when stimulated by nerves.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). A class of medications available over the counter or with a prescription that ease pain and inflammation.

Nurse educator. A nurse who specializes in helping patients understand their overall condition and implementing their treatment plans.

Occupational therapist. A health professional who teaches ways to protect joints, minimize pain, perform activities of daily living, and conserve energy.

Orthopaedist. A surgeon who specializes in the treatment of, and surgery for, bone and joint diseases. Also called orthopaedic surgeon.

Pericarditis. Inflammation of the pericardium, the thin sac-like membrane that surrounds the heart. Pericarditis can be caused by rheumatoid arthritis.

Physical therapist. A health professional who works with patients to improve joint function.

Pleurisy. Inflammation of the pleura, the linings surrounding the lungs. Pleurisy can be caused by rheumatoid arthritis.

Psychologist. A health professional who seeks to help patients cope with difficulties in the home and workplace that may result from their medical conditions.

Rheumatoid arthritis. A form of arthritis in which the immune system attacks the tissues of the joints, leading to pain, inflammation, and eventually joint damage and malformation. It causes swelling and redness in joints, and may make people feel sick, tired, and feverish. Rheumatoid arthritis may also affect skin tissue, the lungs, the eyes, or the blood vessels.

Rheumatoid factor (RF). An antibody that is present eventually in the blood of most people with rheumatoid arthritis. Not all people with rheumatoid arthritis test positive for rheumatoid factor, and some people test positive for rheumatoid factor, yet never develop the disease. Rheumatoid factor also can be positive in some other diseases.

Synovium. A thin membrane inside the joint capsule that secretes synovial fluid. In rheumatoid arthritis, the synovium is attacked by the immune system.

Synovial fluid. A fluid secreted by the synovium that lubricates the joint and keeps the cartilage smooth and healthy.

Tendons. Tough, fibrous cords that connect muscles to bones.

Ultrasound. A technique that allows doctors to view the soft tissues of the body by bouncing sound waves off the tissue and then converting the echoes into a picture called a sonogram.

Vasculitis. Inflammation of the blood vessels. Vasculitis can occur as a complication of rheumatoid arthritis.

X-ray. A procedure in which low-level radiation is passed through the body to produce a picture called a radiograph. X-rays of joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis are used to determine the degree of joint destruction.


The NIAMS gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the following individuals in the preparation and review of previous versions of this publication: John H. Klippel, M.D., Arthritis Foundation, Atlanta, GA; Amye L. Leong, Paris, France; Michael D. Lockshin, M.D., Barbara Volcker Center for Women and Rheumatic Disease, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York, NY; Kate Lorig, R.N., Dr.P.H., Stanford University, Stanford, CA; J. Lee Nelson, M.D., Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, WA; Paul G. Rochmis, M.D., Fairfax, VA; Ronald L. Wilder, M.D., Ph.D., MedImmune, Inc., Gaithersburg, MD; Stanley R. Pillemer, M.D, NIH; and Reva Lawrence, M.P.H., Paul H. Plotz, M.D., and Susana Serrate-Sztein, M.D., NIAMS/NIH. Special thanks also go to Cheryl Yarboro, R.N., B.S.P.A., NIAMS/NIH, and to the patients who reviewed this publication and provided valuable input.

The mission of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health (NIH), is to support research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases; the training of basic and clinical scientists to carry out this research; and the dissemination of information on research progress in these diseases. The NIAMS Information Clearinghouse is a public service sponsored by NIAMS that provides health information and information sources. Additional information can be found on the NIAMS website at www.niams.nih.gov.

For your information

This publication contains information about medications used to treat the health condition discussed here. When this publication was developed, we included the most up-to-date (accurate) information available. Occasionally, new information on medication is released.

For updates and for any questions about any medications you are taking, please contact

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Toll free: 888-INFO-FDA (888-463-6332)
Website: https://www.fda.gov

For additional information on specific medications, visit Drugs@FDA at https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cder/daf/. Drugs@FDA is a searchable catalog of FDA-approved drug products.

For updates and questions about statistics, please contact

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics

Toll free: 800-232-4636
Website: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs

This publication is not copyrighted. Readers are encouraged to duplicate and distribute as many copies as needed.

Additional copies of this publication are available from:

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)
Information Clearinghouse
National Institutes of Health

1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675
Phone: 301-495-4484
Toll free: 877-22-NIAMS (877-226-4267)
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Email: NIAMSinfo@mail.nih.gov
Website: https://www.niams.nih.gov

NIH Publication No. 17-4179

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