Rheumatoid Arthritis

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a relatively common disease of the joints. In rheumatoid arthritis, the membranes or tissues (synovial membranes) lining the joints become inflamed (synovitis). Over time, the inflammation may destroy the joint tissues, leading to disability. Rheumatoid arthritis affects women twice as often as men, and frequently begins between the ages of 40 and 60.

There are many types of arthritis (disease of the joints). Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation of the synovial membrane of the joints. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis affects young children. For more information, see the topic Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. Osteoarthritis, a more common type of arthritis, has different symptoms and requires different treatment. For more information, see the topic Osteoarthritis.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

Exactly what triggers rheumatoid arthritis is not known, but it is in part due to abnormal immune system activity. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body's own immune system attacks the joint tissues. An inherited factor in some families (genetic predisposition) may increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

The main symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints of the hands, wrists, elbows, feet, ankles, knees, or neck. Rheumatoid arthritis usually affects both sides of the body at the same time. In rare but severe cases, rheumatoid arthritis may affect the eyes, lungs, heart, nerves, or blood vessels. See an illustration of the most commonly affected joints.

How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?

There is no single laboratory test that can be used to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis. Health professionals diagnose rheumatoid arthritis by examining your joints and evaluating your symptoms, medical history, and results of several tests.

What are the treatments for rheumatoid arthritis?

Health professionals now recommend early treatment with certain medications that may control rheumatoid arthritis or prevent the disease from getting worse and may reduce the chance that you will suffer permanent disability. Because many of the medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis have side effects, good communication and regular follow-up with your health professional are very important for successful treatment of the disease. In addition to medications, early treatment includes appropriate exercise and lifestyle changes.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a long-lasting disease that can be controlled but not cured. The goals of treatment are to relieve symptoms, maintain function, and prevent permanent disability. While rheumatoid arthritis does not normally shorten a person's life span, it can cause disability, depending on how severe the disease is and whether it responds to treatment

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