Rheumatoid Arthritis

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This article was last updated on 8/18/2008.
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Illustration of the skeletal systemIs this topic for you?

There are many types of arthritis (disease of the joints). This topic is about rheumatoid arthritis. If you are looking for information about how juvenile rheumatoid arthritis affects young children, see the topic Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. If you are looking for information on the most common form of arthritis in older adults, see the topic Osteoarthritis.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes tissues lining the joints to become swollen, stiff, and painfulClick here to see an illustration. (inflamed).

Over time, this inflammation may destroy the joint tissues. This can limit your daily activities and make it hard for you to walk and use your hands.

Rheumatoid arthritis is 2 to 3 times more common in women than in men. It often begins between the ages of 40 and 60.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known. But rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body's natural defense system attacks the joints. The disease also runs in some families.

What are the symptoms?

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

See a picture of the most commonly affected jointsClick here to see an illustration..

Sometimes rheumatoid arthritis can cause bumps called nodules to form over the elbows, knuckles, spine, and lower leg bones.

How is rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed?

There is no single test for rheumatoid arthritis. Your doctor will look at your joints for signs of swelling or tenderness. He or she will also ask about your symptoms and past health.

You may have blood tests, X-rays, and other tests to find out if another problem is causing your joint pain.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but treatment may help relieve symptoms and control the disease. Treatment continues throughout your life.

Treatment includes medicine, exercise, and lifestyle changes.

Experts recommend early treatment with medicines that may control rheumatoid arthritis or keep it from getting worse. Early treatment also may lower the chances that inflammation will destroy your joints and limit your daily activities.

Many of the medicines used to treat rheumatoid arthritis have side effects. So it is important to have regular checkups and talk with your doctor about any problems. This will help your doctor find a treatment that works for you.

At home, you can relieve your symptoms and help control your disease if you:

  • Rest when you are tired.
  • Protect your joints from injury by using special kitchen tools or doorknobs.
  • Use splints, canes, or walkers to ease pain and take stress off your joints, if your symptoms are severe.
  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Stay at a healthy weight.

If medicine, exercise, and lifestyle changes do not help enough, surgery may be an option. Total joint replacement can be done for many joints in the body.

It can be hard to live with a long-term illness that can limit your ability to do things. It is common for people with rheumatoid arthritis to have some depression. Be sure to seek the help and support you need from friends and family members. Professional counseling also can help you cope with long-term pain and depression.

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Author: Shannon Erstad, MBA/MPHLast Updated: August 18, 2008
Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Stanford M. Shoor, MD - Rheumatology

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